|Me:||And my second question involves a man.|
|Kathryn:||Is it Salman Rushdie? Because the answer is always yes.|
The moment we see a pop artifact offering even a sliver of something different, say, a woman who isn’t a size zero or who doesn’t treat a man as the center of the universe, we cling to it desperately because that representation is all we have. There are all kinds of television shows and movies about women, but how many of them make women recognizable?
The incredible problem Girls faces is that all we want is everything from each movie or television show or book that promises to offer a new voice, a relatable voice, an important voice. We want, and rightly so, to believe our lives deserve to be new, relatable, and important. We want to see more complex, nuanced depictions of what it really means to be whoever we are or were or hope to be. We just want so much. We just need so much.
The desire for authentic representations of girlhood is like searching for water in a desert. It is a matter of survival, and also faith.
He gets to Allegro around 6:30 a.m., later if it’s a weekend, and sets up in the corner of the front room with his back against the posters, closest to the rhythm of clanging spoons and steam and coffee grinding. The postcards come in manila file envelopes, great European cities and masterpieces of Western painting, and he props them against the café’s glass windows – a different vista every day, he laughs. When one of them falls as a causality of his hand gesturing, he glances down and says “you, stay there,” as if talking to a poorly behaved pet. Then he looks up and winks.
His name is Brian William Taylor, and he is – what else? – a poet. The postcards against the window and the poetry books neatly arranged on the table are a part of his writing ritual, though he insists that on some mornings it’s more neuroticism than creative intent. “Ritual has been lost to modern, sophisticated societies,” he muses,” but there are always things you go back to, things that pull you. Books, art, music, cities. Beautiful things that are more than just beautiful – things that are imperfect, too. Things that make you feel something.”
Though the postcards often seem like images from an art history textbook, they are illustrations of something else too – his own life, the stretches of it lived above or next to or a few blocks away from the classics of Western civilization. The university in Heidelberg, where he moved at 24 after deciding Frankfurt wasn’t beautiful enough. Florence, to which he took off at 3 a.m. from Heidelberg, intent on following “this thing building up inside me that I couldn’t ignore.” Told that he was acting like an irresponsible child by the man he was living with in Heidelberg, Taylor said, “Well, I’ll act like a child anywhere I go. I want to act like a child in Florence now.” We agreed that Italians are more open to that sort of attitude, anyway.
|Daniel:||Not true! Jane Goodall is great!|
This is Titian’s Venus of Urbino, from 1538. Isn’t she a knockout? Don’t you just want to stare? Go ahead. Stare. (Alternatively, you can come over to my apartment, where she lives on a postcard taped to my fridge, silently watching me as I absentmindedly eat string cheese at 2am.)
Where do you start with Venus? You probably start with her crotch. It’s in the center of the painting, asking for your attention, so it’s OK. It’s genitalia, everybody be cool. But it’s also not genitalia, because you can’t actually see anything. There’s just her hand, and a ring on her pinky finger, which I like to imagine is an alibi for men in the 1500s who couldn’t resist getting closer to the canvas. It’s cool, man, I’m just checking out her ring. It’s a sweet ring, amirite?
And then there’s that shadowy darkness, which is either pubic hair or the shadow of her hand. Interpretation is left up to you, and varies with your comfort level regarding public hair. So we start in the center — hey, a vagina! — and then our eyes move, someone makes a remark about how luscious and sensuous the colors are. And then we probably return to the center. Again: that’s OK. Vaginas are cool. (Sweet rings: also cool.)Read more
I do not know what I thought Paris would be like, but it was not that way. — Ernest Hemingway
The first thing I saw when we got to Paris was a man peeing on the side of a building. The second thing I saw when we got to Paris was a man peeing into a bush. Neither of these men was Ethan Hawke. I was not wearing a beret, smoking a cigarette, or in love. Which is just as well, because I’m pretty sure I look dumb whenever I do any of those things.
There was a problem.
The problem, I decided, was this: it’s difficult to go to Paris without seeing what you’ve been seeing in your head or on a movie screen since you were twelve. (Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris being the obvious exception.) It is, actually, surprise! a city where normal, sometimes very attractive, other times very homeless people live. Some of these people have great tailors, oui, but some of them are also people who urinate publicly and inexplicably refuse to organize their streets according to any sort of grid.Read more
I slept in a tent last Sunday, in Westlake Park. I woke up the next morning wondering what that meant. It was cold when we poked our heads outside, and dark, and downtown Seattle felt like a dreamworld — a backdrop to discomfort and the disenfranchised. We circled the city blocks trying to wake up and feel our fingers again, trying to sort out what we believed in and what we honestly thought could come of it. It seemed too early in the morning to be pessimistic and optimistic at the same time, so we settled for jam and bread.
As the sun came up I stood next to the tent that was not mine, the tent with the blue peace sign on it, and suddenly policemen with fat-tired bicycles were everywhere. Someone yelled YOU WILL BE ARRESTED IF YOU HAVE A TENT, and someone else yelled THIS IS AN ACT OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, and I didn’t want to move but I didn’t know what I was asking for by not moving. A better America, maybe. But how do you get that, by sleeping in a tent, by being arrested for it, by waving around cardboard signs and putting in your time with the hippies and the homeless? I don’t know. What and how seem to be the words everyone keep stumbling over.
And so we stumble, in newspaper columns and during mealtimes and over and over again, in my own head. Where is this going, what are the consequences, what do you people want and how are you going to get it? It’s fair to be on the fence, to reserve judgement until the movement actually moves towards something, makes some concrete proposals you can either cast your vote for or against. It’s valid to be confused and annoyed and turned off, when all this just sounds like a lot of different (sometimes crazy) people, saying a lot of different (sometimes crazy) things.Read more
Sento is twenty-seven years old, maybe twenty-eight. She’s got a figure, a voice, a hairdo, and an attitude that all say city instead of village, Los Angeles instead of rural Sierra Leone. Mostly, it’s her attitude.  Sento’s confidence is inexplicable, an anachronism; like many other things about the lives of women I know in Kagbere, it seems all but impossible. Keyword being but. Because Sento is there, on that porch, wearing a fitted t-shirt and enormous silver earrings, selling someone a packet of sugar or laughing with some man on a motorbike, radiating confidence the entire time. Impossible, but possible.
Sento is a business lady. The verandah room of her house is also a storeroom, 3/4s of it filled with piles of plastic buckets, plates, crepes (shoes), packets of sugar, salt and Maggi, notebooks, a rusty radio. Buying and selling small items isn’t unusual for women in Kagbere, but on such a large scale, for profit, certainly is. And Sento’s out for profit, as she very proudly illustrated one evening. A bag of Maggi, or MSG, costs seven thousand Leones in Makeni, the largest city in the north, which is too much and too far a distance for most people in the village. But Sento makes trips into the city every few months, packages the Maggi into packets of a tablespoon or two, and resells them, for one hundred Leones each. People just seem to know she sells goods and for how much. Children would silently appear during the evenings I spent with her, sopping from the rain, pay and pocket their wares, and leave as quietly as they came.
We sat close as she taught me how to spoon the Maggi into plastic and twist the plastic into perfect spheres. (Well, hers were perfect.) Scoop, pour, twist, tie, repeat. The sky was a grey-violet color, calm after dinnertime’s torrential storm, and as it darkened we counted the packets we finished and stuffed into a jar: seventy-three. Selling all of them would recoup her costs on the bag of Maggi, and the quarter left marked something she didn’t have to translate into Krio as she held it up to me and smiled widely: profit. To buy rice and goats, or more bags of Maggi, to sell, to make money, to buy more rice. To eat. “Business is how you make money,” she told me, “and money is how you get food.”  I smiled, looked out over the dirt road and the goat field beyond, and thought about the impossibility of picking up business acumen from a woman in a village in northern Sierra Leone. All but impossible, right?
From when she was nine until fifteen, Sento lived in Makeni, which helps explain the big earrings and the tiny t-shirts. Her mother couldn’t afford to keep her, so she was sent to live with an uncle, who put her through evening school. She learned to write, got pregnant when she was fifteen, and returned to Kagbere, to raise her son and run the family store.  The story of a young woman returning to the village pregnant after time in a big city is a familiar one in Kagbere, but Sento expressed no regret. “In Makeni you have to pay for everything,” she explained. “Kagbere is my home.” 
Two men sped by on a motorbike, radio blaring. She points at their receding forms and says, “Makeni boys. They’re bluff.” Bluff, na Krio, translates roughly into cool, hip, confident, self-assured. How do you get to be bluff? I ask.  Sento laughs for a few seconds, thinks about it, then says what sounds like “You’re either bluff or you’re not. You’re bluff!” She pats my hair, which in the humidity flips out with a self-confidence the rest of me does not ever possess. “You’re the bluff one!” I insist. She laughs, looks out at the road, and shrugs, as if to say, Yeah, I know.
Impossible, but possible.Read more
I have four filled notebooks. Napkins and the backs of gift store receipts. Postcards I forgot to send, train tickets, dozens of maps (or plans, or guias). I have audio recordings, shaky video clips, terrible photos taken with a camera I mostly didn’t know how to use, Instagram photos I took with my phone that I wish I didn’t like so much. I have scars, calluses, tan lines, potentially parasites in my blood, and definitely no money in my bank account. I have stories. People keep asking How, and for all the things I lost and found squirreled away in my luggage, I do not have any idea where to begin.
Impossible. No. Begin.