The shape, the mask, the music. Everything about the movie “Halloween”, used to scare the shit out of me. Back when I was a kid. Who saw shadows even in the darkness. Who heard noises and never knew that houses settled. Who ran from the boogeyman as soon as the lights went out, terrified that he might do to me what he did to them.
All grown up now, I no longer believe in the boogeyman. Not that boogeyman at least. Not the one that wheels a large kitchen knife or has an appetite for blood. No, this boogeyman is different.
I remember telling myself that work – a profession or even a career – was just an entity that helped earn an income. That it didn’t have any other value besides that. Until this past summer, when I began to feel him following me.
I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for a little over 5 months. It’s a never-ending job, really. One that cannot be quantified in the typical 9-5pm time frame…knows no boundaries (my daughter regularly bursts in the door when I am using the bathroom)…and does not allow you to take sick days or go on a break. Sure, it doesn’t produce income in the traditional sense; but it does produce years of nurturance and emotional connection. Priceless memories that I will cherish forever. Teaching my son how to swing from monkey bars. Basking in my daughter’s laughter as she chases bubbles.
And yet, because I have not been acquiring income in the traditional sense, I saw a silhouette of his figure behind every bush. Reminding me that I should be working.
Work. That entity that most of my employed friends tell me they wished they were doing differently. My best friend from college is a veterinarian but wishes he raced cars. Another friend in the corporate world longs for a career making and selling her own wine. Not exempt, in my previous job, I wanted to be an author and leadership trainer. All craving a different life. Or, at least, a different part of life. Even when we have it, we want something different. The boogeyman, feasting on our hopes and dreams, until they become the nightmares scaring us to death.
I try tell myself work shouldn’t define me this much, knowing it’s not the truth. Everything piece of academic and intellectual fruit I’ve eaten since my days as an undergrad tells me differently. That everything I did in college and beyond was for work – so that I could have a job, and always have access to a job. That while work does not have to define you, it should be a strong part of you. That if you’re not working, it had better be for a good damn reason; otherwise, you are the issue – it’s not work’s fault you’re unemployed. That as a man, you have but a few purposes in life, and work is one of them, if the primary one.
That’s when the bone-chilling music runs through me. When I know I cannot escape the thoughts. I. Should. Be. Working. Looking for relief, I step into the next room, and stop. He’s staring right at me. Expressionless mask. Blue jumpsuit. Fingers wrapped around a kitchen knife. Shit, I better run.
I had a conversation with a friend recently, and he admitted he was in a rut. He’s in his mid-twenties, has a great career (he’s a lawyer, for god sakes!), lives on his own, is single and ready to mingle, and is your typical bachelor. But, still, he’s stuck in a rut.
He wasn’t the only friend who professed this to me. Another friend who lives in Boston (well, just outside of Boston, really, like most people who live in Boston) and is ready to party as soon as his phone starts to buzz. He is a manager at his job and by all means is successful. Yet, he feels stuck.
Another one of my friends lives in Connecticut also feels their pain. She is unhappy, but not miserable at work – which only means she doesn’t really like her job, and it’s not what she wants to do (although she doesn’t really know what she actually wants to do); but her job is not terrible enough to make her quit. Beyond work, she’s out partying every Saturday, at Happy Hour every Friday, and has Girls Nights about once a month. She vacations with her girl friends and has heart-to-hearts anytime she needs. Despite that, something’s missing.
If that wasn’t enough, another friend from New Hampshire, who is married, has two children, and makes six figures (which makes my puny paycheck look like crap!), wishes he could go back. He loves his life now — his wife, his children, dog, white-picket fence, and all that nuclear family jazz – but every now and then, he talks about the way things used to be.
And then there’s me.
We’re all afflicted by it. The life that was. What’s haunting us can’t be found in the DSM, and can’t be cured with a pill. We have no physiological deficits, and we’re not suffering from PTSD.
Our problem is we have already frolicked through the fields of heaven, so the circumstances we’re going through now simply feel like purgatory. We’re all wishing we could somehow fuse our lives now with our lives from back then. We all wish we could return to a life that was.
We’re all going through the quarter-life crisis, in our own way. Here’s how my quarter-life crisis started.
A raw excerpt, from a longer piece I’ve started on what I have learned from working in the field of preventing sexual violence and violence against women. Enjoy!
What have I learned by working in this field?
The easy answer is a lot. I’ve learned a lot. A lot about myself, specifically my upbringing, and those lessons that were passed down to me, reinforcing the idea that women are objects – not subjects, but rather, things in the form of sexual commodities.
How many girls you got, Ab, I was asked countless times by older guys on the block, encouraging me to have not just one girl, but several. Years later, those comments would turn into You hit that yet, which was code for, did you have sex with her. Not, Did you two have sex, which commands equality. Rather, Did you have sex with her. Meaning, did you do whatever it is you wanted to do to her sexually. She has no sexual needs, no emotions. She doesn’t even have to have a name. She only needed to have a fat ass that I was supposed to tap, hit, or smash.
After being in this field, however, I have been told that I should simply refute and reject these teaching, as if it were that simple. As misguided as these teachings are, it is not a matter as simple as flicking on a light switch – Click. I will no longer treat women like sex objects.
As in, after attending some training or hearing a speaker, my world is supposed to open up so much so that I change everything about the way in which I see the world, in particularly, my view of women. And if, for instance, an attractive woman is in my vicinity (whether it be Jennifer Lopez on the TV screen or someone at the gym), I am not supposed to gawk at them (rightfully so!); more than that, I am not even supposed to notice them, because even noticing that Jennifer Lopez has a voluptuous physique is objectifying.
Herein lies the complexity of it all. If we are able to freely admit that men’s sexual objectification of women takes years to formulate (and if cannot admit this, we are not critically assessing the situation), we must – in turn – acknowledge that it will take a significant amount of teaching and instruction for guys to unlearn their objectifying values and adopt new ways of behaving. If I’ve learned nothing else, it is that we should be patient when working with men.
Now, this isn’t to say that we should not continue to hold men accountable for fawning over the Jennifer Lopez doppelganger, for instance. Because we should. Accountability is one avenue for behavior change. But how we hold men account needs to come in different forms. Smacking men (figuratively) with verbal insults creates a divide, pitting men on one side, and everyone else looking to change men’s behavior on another side. Telling men that they need to change without acknowledging the complexities of it all (for instance, how media uses men’s values and caters by giving sexual images of female entertainers) is shortsighted. We must approach this as a critical issue, not one with a simple solution. Further, demanding that men change their behaviors towards women (in this case, sexual objectification) without giving healthy alternates is limiting. If we want men to behave better, we should provide examples, namely: how do we show men they can express an attraction to someone, while not treating that person as if they are only a fat ass or pair of perky boobs? How do we teach men they can give a compliment, while not harboring feelings being entitled to attention? How do we teach men they can express themselves sexually, while not treating the person as though their only role is sexual?
Too many times, we present men with what we think is a powerful message – in the form of a one-time speaker, which really just becomes a great optic. But as with many speakers, as time passes and luster of the words fade, behaviors return to the status quo. If we are to help men move along the continuum of seeing, and treating women more respectfully, empathically, equally, we should exhibit patience. If you have a guy in your life, it may take several conversations for that guy to see the issue with gawking at women at the gym. (They may never see the harm.) If you work with young men, it may take numerous programs and events before those guys have a true understanding of how they sexually objectify women without even knowing it. Just like exercising, getting men to change their objectifying behaviors will take repetitions, exposure to new ways of thinking (akin to muscle confusion), and further repetitions. This is not a process that will come about instantaneously like jello pudding, and we must remain cognizant of that. Through it all, we must be patient. Holding men accountable while exhibiting patience.
Oh, and just in case there is any confusion – the message is intended for men, not women. I am not asking women to exhibit patience with men’s behaviors, just like I would never ask our LGBT brothers and sisters to be patient (that is, content) with homophobic acts by the heterosexual majority. So I am speaking to me (primarily), and professionals who work with men (secondarily), to exude patience in getting men to change. In the end, we will not see results overnight. But the lessons we teach now, have the potential to last a lifetime.
Boy did I need a fix today. The white canvass of a blank screen is my drug. Seeing blank print on this screen is like my high – it takes me far away to a magical place where I have no worries (or at least they don’t worry me as much), where positive vibes are the only sensation running through my body, where I can feel, completely and utterly, safe. Safe to just be. Safe to be me. Years ago, in a distant world, it would have been a notepad and a pen. Now it’s a computer screen, providing me a fix.
We all need something to help us cope with the stressors. Nothing is absolute, so maybe not everyone needs something; but I sure as hell do. My father-in-law would say you need something to take the edge off. I guess he’s right…sort of. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many of my family members, and my friends’ family members, hooked on drugs that I could never understand turning to a substance to ease the pain. I remember my uncle getting into heated arguments with my grandmother, past midnight, walking up the whole block. Shouting, cursing. Talking about what she better not do, spitting off about when he is going to do. He was a high as he wanted to be. Probably off hair-ron…or as it is classically known, heroin. Those memories are burned within my conscious, the way an animal would be branded by its owner.
Still, taking the edge off isn’t what it’s like for me. Neither is it as described in New Jack City, when Pookie cried out, “but that shit just be callin’ me man, it be callin’ me.” That which gets my high isn’t calling me, I’m calling it. Feeling all sorts of mixed up inside, with an irritating itch, and only thing can scratch it. To be taken away from this world, even for a brief period of time. To let go of the inner strife – the frustrations and anger and disappointment – if but for a moment. To feel safe enough to just be, and just be me.
So right now, I don’t need a shot or a drink or a glass of wine. That would only make me resent the amount of time I’d have to work out, to work off the calories. No, I just need the white canvass and the blank print. Because what happened today, was some bullshit.
Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” inspired this piece. This poem isn’t so much of a rebuttal (or in any way disrespectful) to Master Angelou’s brilliant work. Instead, it’s meant to be a different take on a caged bird singing, which I felt like, years ago, when I couldn’t find a job for about half a year, and it seemed nothing was going my way. As with many difficult times, you go through a series of ups and downs. On the good days, I could tell myself to remain optimistic and felt like “Caged Birds” Angelou writes about. On the bad days, though, I felt defeated and downtrodden, like this bird.
“Please don’t tell me the Caged Bird Sings”
I often wonder what a bird trapped inside of a cage does all day;
Sitting on his perch…rocking back and forth…chirping as if someone is listening;
Looking at the same four walls,
Sick of the hideous green paint and yellow wallpaper.
I bet monotony soon sets in – perch…food pellets…water beaker…crash against the bars…perch…food pellets…water beaks…crash against the bars…
His arms probably feel heavy as lead,
Every time he flaps those wings,
He smacks his beak against the cage,
Reminding himself that he’s a prisoner to the cage.
He chirps high and loud, like birds singing in the trees,
And I wonder if he ever thinks, or imagines, or dreams
What it must feel like to be free;
Does he know what it feels like to have the wind blowing against his feathers as he soars through the sky;
Or to own the skies and have it play second fiddle to a show where he is the brightest star;
Or to fly all the way up to the sun, and kiss her on the cheek, and feel her radiance against his breath.
The caged bird doesn’t move much – perch…food pellets…water beaker…crash again the bars…
He listens to their callous laughter, patronizing tweets, and chitter-chatter of how content he should be;
As if they’ve already forgotten what it’s like to gulp mouthfuls of air,
That tastes so pure, and clean, and fresh,
The way he only hears about on those infomercials, which drown out his nightly chirping spree.
The caged bird sits on his branch,
Sulking, and swinging back and forth,
Dreaming what it must feel like to be free,
Just to drown out the voices screaming inside of his head
Please don’t tell me that you hear the caged bird singing.
I am that caged bird,
And I am screaming,
And dreaming for the day my soul will find freedom.