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How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant
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Tuesday
Mar162010

In the locker room

The other day, at the Y, a lady got mad at me.

Her locker was directly next to mine, and she had her stuff kind of laid out all over, because she was doing her post-shower change. I live a few blocks away, so I never change in the locker room; I just take my stuff and get the hell out, because it’s hot and stuffy in there. I had no problem with this lady arranging her clothing and moisturizers wherever she needed to. Anyway, all I said was, “Excuse me.” In my mind, I was saying, “I’m just going to grab my stuff and get out of your way, because after all I’m not changing but you are, haha! So no need to move, pardon me, I’m running away now.” So I was trying to be quick, so I could get out of her way. But while I was grabbing my stuff she was huffing and sighing and whmmmphing. I couldn’t figure how why she was so mad, so I sort of assumed she was an angry person and I shouldn’t even address it. I took my coat and moved to the next aisle to get my stuff in order.

But as soon as I walked away she immediately started bitching about me to another woman, about how I hadn’t giving her a chance to move her stuff, how I was in such a rush and how impatient I was, how people are so thoughtless nowadays, no one thinks, no one cares, grumble grumble grumble. I was going to let it go and just leave, but I didn’t, I walked back and asked her what I’d done, because I didn’t see it. She immediately softened—as people often do when they’re forced to look into the faces of the people they’ve labeled as the enemy—and she explained her perspective, and we actually had a nice chat, and all was forgiven, and it was fine.

Except I felt bad. And I still feel bad about it. Not because of her, she turned out to be a genuinely sweet person who was having a crummy day, but it startled me, as it always does, how quick people are to assume the worst of each other.

It sort of astounded me that someone would read me as being insensitive—ME! The most Sensitive Person Alive!—but then I realized that people don’t know me, they project whatever the hell they want, just as I do to them, and I probably encountered the other most Sensitive Person Alive that day, but I was just as willing to pretend she was an old meanie who wanted to spread her unhappiness across the land. And it upset me to think that I could ruin someone’s day by just saying “Excuse me,” and how often had I blown past someone or accidentally bumped into them, and did that make them feel bad? I realize I’m taking on quite a bit of responsibility for everyone's feelings, but it’s true, those things can have an effect on you, those little jabs and bumps that are part of living in the city.

I’ve been feeling ever since like I should wear a shirt that reads, “CONTENTS ARE FRAGILE,” and actually that we should all wear that shirt, so that we can all remember to be kind to each other, because life can be so hard, and we’re only here for a little while.

If you’re a parenting blogger or avid blog-reader, you probably read the New York Times piece on “Bloggy Boot Camp,” and read the responses to it. I won’t add to them yet, but I did write a letter to the Times, and if it doesn’t get published, I’ll put it up here. If anyone questions whether there’s really that much hostility to moms and moms who blog, they should read the comments in the Motherlode blog at the Times. Or don’t read them. There is so much anger and derision directed at mothers, it’s truly staggering. We’re all narcissistic and neglectful and our children are awful. But how do they conclude all these things without actually reading a single blog, because after all they wouldn’t read us because we’re so disgusting?

Yesterday I received a bunch of emails from people who had seen my latest Redbook column on the MSN homepage. I didn’t know it was there, so I visited the site, where I made the mistake of reading the comments. And I learned that apparently I am the reason civilization is going down the toilet, and my child will grow up to be a serial killer. Ah.

You know, in both of these cases the comments themselves don’t bother me—I happen to know nothing they’re saying is in the least bit accurate—but it’s so sad to me that people fail to realize that they’re attacking actual human beings. Human beings whose lives they couldn’t begin to know. Or maybe they do realize that, and they don’t care, they feel so bad about themselves they want to make other people feel just as terrible. I’m not sure which is worse. I don’t think it’s my job to figure it out.

I was rooting around for comfort this morning, and I came upon a poem by Mary Oliver, one of my favorites of all time, so I thought I’d share. This is especially for Kate, beautiful Kate, one of the kindest people out there, who just lost her grandmother.

Dogfish

Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing

kept flickering in with the tide

and looking around.

Black as a fisherman's boot,

with a white belly.

If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile

under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin,

which was rough

as a thousand sharpened nails.

And you know

what a smile means,

don't you?

*

I wanted the past to go away, I wanted

to leave it, like another country; I wanted

my life to close, and open

like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song

where it falls

down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery;

I wanted

to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,

whoever I was, I was

alive

for a little while.

*

It was evening, and no longer summer.

Three small fish, I don't know what they were,

huddled in the highest ripples

as it came swimming in again, effortless, the whole body

one gesture, one black sleeve

that could fit easily around

the bodies of three small fish.

*

Also I wanted

to be able to love. And we all know

how that one goes,

don't we?

Slowly

*

the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water.

*

You don't want to hear the story

of my life, and anyway

I don't want to tell it, I want to listen

to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.

And anyway it's the same old story - - -

a few people just trying,

one way or another,

to survive.

Mostly, I want to be kind.

And nobody, of course, is kind,

or mean,

for a simple reason.

And nobody gets out of it, having to

swim through the fires to stay in

this world.

*

And look! look! look! I think those little fish

better wake up and dash themselves away

from the hopeless future that is

bulging toward them.

*

And probably,

if they don't waste time

looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

Reader Comments (103)

Thank you, AJ! I like you too. You all. But especially you.
March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlice Bradley
Someone may have already mentioned this in the previous comments but it seems to me that in the "Internet world" it's so easy to be anonomyous--things we would NEVER say to another person`s face are suddenly OK because we aren`t in the same room with them and can actually see the effect our words have on another human being. It seems we no longer have the ability to feel empathy with another human being. And that is sad.
March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPamela
The Yarn Harlot admonished her readers long ago to comment on blogs as if we were all hanging out in one big room together. I've tried to follow that advice and it has never led me wrong. I still think your comment on the Motherlode piece (on page 2) was superb and to the point. And Katerina was right about the woman - some people enjoy getting annoyed, but they don't mind being disproved in their assumptions, either.

Only connect...
March 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersuburbancorrespondent
Well, aren't I a jerk for pouring lemon juice on your paper cuts?

Go ahead and delete my self-righteous comment. I think you're swell.
March 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjs
One of the things that permanently pushed me out the exit door of NY was when a 70+ year old woman slammed the elevator door in my face. In our building. Where we both lived.

The next day I was negotiating a treacherous bus ride with my purse and it was sticking out too far and someone bumped me and called me a bitch. I turned around and it was yet another older woman.

Now peacefully residing in L.A., the only thing I need here is really good car insurance and the ability to spot road rage from 20 feet away.
March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSuzy
I just left a comment on the MSN version of your article - with the username Melissa_1970 if you get a chance to read. Long story short - you rock, those people are idiots. :)

To quote Bugs Bunny (what? he's a great source of wisdom!) "Whatta buncha maroons."



March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa C
I wonder if that woman was so testy because she has been told off multiple times for spreading her stuff out all over the locker room. It's one of the more annoying things people do in a gym locker room, treat it like their personal boudoir. She may have assumed that you were annoyed with her, too. Which I would have been. Because I, like most others, are not nearly as sweet as you. Which is too bad for the world, really.

At our local Y there is a woman who takes up all 6 hooks in one of the small shower areas, has her gear spread out all over the floor, turns on the shower and lets it run for about 5 minutes (hello! the Y is a charity! don't waste the hot water!) while she "prepares" for her shower and anyone who wants to use the other 3 shower stalls in that area has to tiptoe through her belongings to get to the other showers. I've never said anything, but one of these days... I'm gonna snap and tramp all over her stuff with wet feet. Kidding! Mostly. I'm Canadian. It's against our constitution. Or something.

I was raised by a dad who was in the navy from the age of 16 1/2 (LONG time ago) and he taught me to fit in with the crowd, not to take up more than my fair share of room and not to demand every one tiptoe around me and my stuff. I've always thought that if more people had that kind of upbringing, the world would be a much easier place to navigate. Fewer towels to step over, if nothing else.

Or we could just have more Alices. That would be an improvement, too.
March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDawn
Dude, you have no idea how amazing you are. I think your going back was brave and incredible because if everyone was forced to look at things from another perspective and CONFRONT the person they are either accusing or are the accused, the world would be better. One small step for Finslippy, one giant leap for the peoples of the world. Thank you!!!
March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElyse
Sometimes, I pick up positive life-lessons in my work environment. You would think it's all TPS Reports all the time (I designed a new cover for our TPS reports - it's lovely! It has 14 pieces of flair!)

Anyway. In life when one says "those three little words" we all think of I LOVE YOU. I have tried to internalize a mantra that started at work but I've found it has applicability in ALL of my life, and it is also "three little words" --

Assume positive intent.

I try to do that. I'm not always successful, and I have bad days too. But I think I'm getting better at it because I find myself coaching my husband and kids on doing the same thing. And I hope they'll coach me back when I slip up.

I don't want to be naive. I don't want to be Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm ('cause really - did she ever use the F-word???).

But I want to assume positive intent. I CHOOSE to do that whenever I remember to.

Hopefully my doing that will help me avoid inadvertently making someone else's day feel awful. Even if I don't, at least I know it makes ME feel better.

Signed,Rebecca of Fucking Sunnybrook Farmsaka JustLinda
March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJustLinda
This is probably going to come out wrong but I don't usually have all that much of a takeaway thing from your website. I read it because you are as funny as hell but goddamn if this isn't the truest thing and one of the hardest things about being human--having to share the world with other humans, and remember they're real complex three dimensionality and equal value.

To what you say I would add this minor insight: What people project is something about themselves--their own fears, guilts, etc. I find out all kinds of unsavory things about myself by reading my own projection. It's a hall of mirrors and not entirely straightforward. The woman in the gym feels guilty about something, most likely, some inconsideration of hers and overreacts to imaginary criticism. Or something. Not that like this technique is magic. And it is obvious. But it helps me stand back. I'm an over-reactor myself.

It's always a bit sad and often infuritating what people are projecting onto mothers. Their own mother wasn't what they wanted, peevish little cracks of disappointment. Plus all kinds of sexist distortion. I feel like my brains has some specially made crevices such bullshit just naturally seeps into and so it drives me extra crazy.

Life is so hard. We are only here for a little while.

The comments here are brilliant. You brought out so many people's brilliance in this comment thread.

March 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterozma
The Mary Oliver poem broke my heart wide open.
March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJill
How is it that the majority of people who display their lives online are also the most fragile people out there?

We're all suckers for punishment. Or something.

If you make that t-shirt, I would so totally buy one.
March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngella
This was such a lovely post to read, and you have such a wonderful way of talking about and dealing with these pesky life issues. I've read a few of your comments on other's blogs re: this whole NYT piece, and each one has impressed me. I wish more people would take the time to be kind, thoughtful, and respectful while they clearly state what they disagree with.

Thank you for writing this. And thank you for writing, period. =)
March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy
I love Mary Oliver, too! And in fact, I have chosen her to be the subject of my poetry assignment in April (for my totally awesome poetry class. Being a perma-student has its perks!)
March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBarb @ getupandplay
"insensitive—ME! The most Sensitive Person Alive!"

Sensitive to your own issues isn't the same as being sensitive to other people and their concerns.

Remember the NYT piece about people talking to their babies? You were pretty quick to leap on the sneer train. (Attacking actual human beings? Since when is this a worry for you?)

The problem with Mommy Blogs is that there's a whole universe of hair patting commenters (those who disagree are usually deleted) and this chorus lulls the writer into thinking that she (or he) is always right. In the real world, you'd have some give and take.

Mommy blogging is tired. There's rants about how mean other people are; there's rants about the kid, the husband, the school; there's rants, period.

Amalah is the only one I can stand because she's grateful. She writes about successes and failures with the same grace and fortitude.
March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnna
It works the other way too...going about your day in neutral for a second you make eye contact with a stranger and instead of the pro forma greeting they offer real eye contact and a smile. It can elevate you. Unexpectadly.
March 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnna Palmer
Anna, what are you talking about? I never attacked anyone in that piece, and I said nothing in there that I wouldn't say to Jane Brody to her face. I was trying to be funny. You don't get that, fine. You don't like my humor? You are free to not read. 



You clearly arrived here in attack mode, and you don't like me, so why don't you go away now? Bye. 
March 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlice Bradley
Sorry, that was to the first Anna. Who clearly has a Mommyblogger bee in her bonnet.

Second Anna, that's a great point.



March 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteralice
Incidentally, I don't recall saying anywhere in this post that I have NEVER IN MY LIFE been a jerk to anyone else, that I have NEVER MADE MISTAKES, that everything I say is Right and True and Kind.

I get to have feelings, even if I may have been a jerk sometime in the past. But calling the Jane Brody piece "sneering" is really stretching it.
March 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteralice
Thank you for this.When I took Psych in college I learned about the Primary Attributional Error (I think that's what it's called). When we see good in ourselves, it's because we're good people, and when bad things happen to us, it's because of circumstances. And, we are quick to think the exact opposite of others. The good that happens to them is because of circumstances and the bad is because they are bad. It's too easy to be gentle to our own sensitivity while ignoring that of others. Your post is a good gentle reminder.
March 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie
This is lovely Alice and a great reminder that there are real people behind words on a screen. (Including me! I swear - I'm real.)

I usually do what I call the elevator test: If I am getting into an elevator and am feeling impatient and am tempted to hit "close door" before the next person gets in, I wonder, what would I do if I got to my floor and discovered that person was here to have a meeting with me? What if I found out that was my boss's mother? What if it was someone who was just diagnosed with cancer this morning? Or the person who just won some Mother Theresa award for do-gooding?

Overwrought, I know. But it generally helps me keep the door open.
March 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermom101
I'm glad I read this. I am a sensitive person, too, and normally I'd steer clear of this type of kerfuffle (my new favorite word), but since I was at the conference and met the reporter I was more interested in the story than I might otherwise have been. I spent about 2 days reading all the comments and responses and literally started to feel stressed and sick, even though none of it was directed at me personally.

I've really been trying to be more mindful of the things you pointed out, that there are real people involved and that assumptions aren't always (or even often) based in reality. I won't even make a negative comment about a celebrity on Twitter now, because they might be reading!
March 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAbby
I have more to say about this post, but a friend just posted this as her facebook status. It is supposedly an Irish prayer: Grant me the sense of humor Lord, the saving grace to see a joke, to win some happiness from life and pass it on to other folk. Words to live by.
March 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterpatrice
Fragile...must be Italian.

Great Post.
March 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam
"...they feel so bad about themselves they want to make other people feel just as terrible." They want to make other people feel worse, to bend them over so that they can step up on their backs and gasp fresh air.

Like drowning men. Drowning in their own sorrow and misery for the life they feel is out of their control to have, for the person they want to be but who they think is dying inside them.

You resuscitated that woman. You went back and allowed her to be her better self. She will pass that goodness along to someone else. It was no skin off your nose, although I'm sure it was a scary thing to do. You were brave in putting yourself out there to take in her pain - not her anger directed at you, but her pain or anger with herself - and give you gave back to her as love.

And yes, that's the corniest thing I could ever say. But it doesn't make it less true.

March 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJozet at Halushki

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