When I was 11 or so, a busted white sedan cruised onto our court — about half a dozen kids playing touch football, or maybe tag, I don’t remember — and the man inside, elderly but not frail — sharp eyes, like a hawk wearing glasses, I’ll always remember that — said he’d give me a dollar if I hopped in and showed him how to find a place.
I opened the door.
He steered with both hands and looked at me sideways.
I pointed right.
“You’re going to want to turn again in a bit. There.”
“No, right there. That was it.”
Too fast for easy braking at that point.
I only remember being annoyed, because I had been thinking of what to buy with a dollar. It meant upwards of 30 Now N’ Laters, maybe a Charleston Chew. Some slick Jolly Rancher bars.
And here was Old Man McGhee, missing turns, clocking me sideways.
It was weird when I got in the car, my friend’s face. I remember it as clearly as the man’s eyes. My friend didn’t say anything, but his face looked different, wide-eyed, frozen, stuck on stupid almost. It occurred to me only later it was the punch dumb, fish mouth face you’d make when all the lessons and lectures you’d heard about materialized in human form and you couldn’t find the words: Don’t talk to strangers.
Jesus, don’t get in fucking cars with them.
You may have seen the T-shirt. It has a gun maybe, or a shovel.
Any implement will do.
It needs to be appropriately violent.
“Rules for dating my daughter.”
“Anything you do to her, I’ll do to you.”
I think they’re hideous, some of the more broken parts of a culture that so smoothly perpetuates the idea that men are violent, angry, unfeeling fucks and that girls and women are somehow their property.
It’s the easiness that gets me, the smoothness.
“Boys will be boys,” they say, with a shrug maybe or a short laugh. Even people who know better sometimes catch themselves.
Step on my property, touch it, her, and I’ll bust you up.
Or, worse, I’ll turn you into an object.
Just like her.
“Anything you do to her, I’ll do to you.”
Ha ha ha.
That’s how it’s passed on.
At the store. In your home.
They found the tumor in her spine.
For months, nearly a year, she had experienced pain bad enough to take her out of most activities. Doctors diagnosed this and then that.
There it was, a white hot star in the gray black cosmos of her neck.
It was benign, they said. But it would require surgery.
They described it as sort of a soft putty, surrounded by a shell of bone — bone made harder by fighting the damage within.
He stopped not long after the missed turn.
There was a dirt patch for a shoulder. No sidewalks on that side of the road yet. Now there are sidewalks on both sides, stucco houses, patches of eco-fake grass. But then there were only orchards, ghostly, gnarled trees that could hide you twenty feet in, gobble you up.
“Oh,” he mumbled, “Sorry, kid.”
He smiled. Sharp eyes. Crinkly.
Then he turned the car around.
I pointed again.
He made the turn. Made another turn.
“That’s Ticonderoga, and that’s the court. Should be right there.”
“Perfect,” he said, slowing the car to look. “Thanks.”
The car wheeled around again. Stuttered backwards. Wheezed towards home.
“Thanks,” I said, closing the door and pocketing the dollar and wondering if my mom would let me walk to the store later for candy.
A stupid phrase.
Maybe a trip to the movies, where it feels natural to see a screen filled with 20 men and one or two “strong. female. characters.” and think OK, this is a good one.
The feminism is working.
An internet debate where if there is any initial doubt to be had, it always — always — first lands on her.
A comment about not holding business dinners or drinks with women, at all, ever, as if that’s a reasonable solution.
Two men talking about abortion, as if their opinions must be heard.
Men who have never given thought to, say, changing a blazer for fear of being raped, shouting it’s all made up. No one has ever measured their hemlines.
The lessons we tell boys: Keep your keys between your fingers. A whistle around your neck.
Ha ha ha.
But how ordinary to tell the girls.
The smoothness of it, casual, acceptable, enveloping, like a cloak unearthed from the dusty trunks of ancestors not long gone or maybe still puttering around, recalling a time when women couldn’t vote, as if it was acceptable beforehand because it was just … how it was.
Phrases we’ve maybe heard before and they seemed OK, and so they come out again, effortlessly.
They form our normal.
Just how it is.
Like a lubricant.
Or because of?
A Senate committee deciding on taxes for everyone: 23 members, 3 women. The entire Senate voting on healthcare and taxes and education for everyone: 100 members, 21 women. The same percentages for every state and town council and mayorship across the land.
No state has ever had a black woman governor.
A newspaper sports page riddled with stories of men and few, if any, women. A national political narrative shaped by sexual predators.
Businesses with few women in the boardroom. An actual debate, with written opinions, thoughts made public, about whether women are too inherently stupid for tech.
Movies made with few women in the writer’s room.
An ongoing campaign — a contest in which people are having a hard time deciding — between an actual pedophile who targeted girls and who believes women shouldn’t hold public office and a man who actually convicted racists who killed girls.
Hmm. Decisions, decisions.
A confessed sexual predator in the highest office in the land because when it came down to it, it was either him.
Or a woman.
The doctors cut her neck open, carved a window in the bone, and scooped out the tumor.
The bone around it, they said, had hardened so much that there was no need for reinforcements.
But there’s a scar she’ll carry now.
“It won’t go away, but it should become less visible,” they said.
Let it show, my child.
You’ll have so many more anyway.
Ones I cannot see and ones I cannot possibly comprehend.
In the “me too” moment, men, fathers, we take a lot of flack for centering outrage on our relationships to the girls and women in our lives — “As the father of a daughter” — as opposed to feeling abject sorrow and horror at the everyday scars we leave.
Yes, all men. Especially the “good” ones who want praise for baseline decency.
And yet, we still have daughters to raise.
We have to prepare them.
But how do I prepare my daughter for … this?
Kick, I can tell her. Bite. Punch. Grab anything you can and use it — Krav Maga style.
There are no rules.
Never leave a sister behind in a bar if your gut is off about that guy. Gather the pack and pretend winter has come.
What kind of hellscape am I arming you for?
It makes me ache in a way I can’t quite explain, to know the scars you’ll endure are ones I can only read about, listen to second-hand.
Depending on where you live, your circles, your friends, and lovers, and future occupations someone will think it acceptable to consider your rights, your worth.
Men will gather in gilded rooms to vote on your body.
“How many times does women’s history have to repeat itself?” Lynne Spender wrote in the ‘80s about women in the ‘60s fighting the same battles as women before the ‘20s, before the turn of the century, before … all of it.
They already told us, Elizabeth and Emmeline and Rosa and Angela, while their sisters tell us again today.
It used to be you had to write a book, make a speech.
Now we’re all media conglomerates, casting our every whim and thought into the national discussion.
Before #metoo, there was #yesallwomen, and #everydaysexism, and …
They’ve been telling us since forever.
All the disparate parts — the disjointed, seemingly fragmented threads — they may not seem connected on the face of it.
But they add up.
They form what we consider normal; they weave the tapestry of our culture.
I think of that busted sedan.
I had to go outside and actively put myself in danger.
Talk to strangers. Get in cars.
You’ll be in danger before you leave the house. Your rights are at risk while you’re still at home, putting on your shoes.
I think of those T-shirts.
The urge to protect. I get that. Any father does.
It must seem so easy to sit on a porch with a shotgun, rather than working to dismantle the patriarchy in our everyday circles.
Like swatting flies.
It’s just everywhere. It’s easier to just laugh and go along than to tell your sexist friend to knock that shit off.
But men, that’s our duty.
Otherwise, we’re just passing it on, each of us. Because that’s how it happens, all of it — so smoothly, so simply. We don’t see rooms full of men creating laws about women’s bodies, we don’t see pay gaps and debates about intelligence, we don’t see wolf packs in the bar or the parking lot with keys between the fingers instead of just enjoying the god damn night off, buttons to lock in women, men beating women statistics, men shooting women statistics, horrible representation across the board, you name it, without a million everyday conversations paving the way, making it all socially acceptable.
We define, each of us, the culture of our circles.
The circles spread. They form what passes for normal.
So fuck your stupid T-shirts. Look instead at the messages, the actions, the words you send forth.
Allow around you.
And then, finally, I think down to your bones, my child.
I know the world you will inherit will be so different than the one gifted me, the prisms through which we see it like a looking glass dividing us. I can only hope you’ll form a shell of bones hard enough to protect yourself but not hard enough to cause damage from within, because there’s so much good, too.
Yes, you’ll know the bad, and it will seem some sick, cruel joke, and it will be. But you’ll also know who came before you, you’ll know the stories of your sisters, the ones who already told us and tell us now — and in your moments of sorrow or doubt or pain, they will lift you up and give you strength and you’ll turn to the sisters at your side and together you’ll say their names loud enough to advance the reckoning and you’ll keep passing them on to those who come after you and on and on and on until the pantheon is one day full and just.
“Emmeline and Elizabeth and Rosa and Angela and Hillary and ”