Tuesday, February 28, 2012

the path (vi)

My mother called me on Saturday morning to say she remembered the story I'd posted about in Section V. She laughed as she said, "You've always been strong willed, haven't you? Oh Dear, don't forget the time in San Diego when I'd invited over that young couple that had just moved to California from South Carolina. Do you remember them? He was a Master Chief in the Navy, stationed on Coronado. I knew his family from swimming at the Y..."

I remembered the couple, but I couldn't remember any of the details of the evening.

So mom reminded me.

"Well, after dinner, the husband looked at his wife - and then at you and said - why don't ya'll go clean the kitchen while the men talk? He was serious and his wife jumped right up. But I almost choked when you raised your eyebrows and in a southern drawl said, 'You ain't in the south no more. Do you not realize that *I* cooked this meal? In these parts, that means YOU clean-up.' Oh, my goodness that was the funniest thing I'd ever heard and to see his expression, I nearly died!"

The Jesuit saying (that I love and quote so often), "Give me a child until they are seven, and I'll give you the man…" is to highlight that who we become, is largely shaped when we are young.

Growing up, as the youngest of seven, with a six year spread between me and my brother, I truly was the baby. It was fun, except when it wasn't. I remember that people would treat me so differently. When they'd give me everything I wanted because I was adorable = awesome. When they'd treat me like a baby and make me go to bed early = not so awesome.

I remember that although my father would often call upon my siblings to help or confide in, he often treated me like I was incompetent. "Don't talk … don't touch … don't don't don't." I think it was largely because of how I perceived I fit in to the world, and the fact that there were six highly successful (in one way or another) kids before me, I felt like I needed to prove myself that much more. I am smart! I am strong! I am independent! I am funny!

In school and in work and in any situation where I need to demonstrate my brain power and resolve, I tend to go turbo. So whenever sexism enters the picture, it sends me clear over the brink. Lately, there's been chatter on internet sites about women who have felt victimized simply because they are a woman. The thought of this enrages me. As does any situation where women are attacked, condemned, treated as second-class citizens, or treated as an object.

I remember I was 16-years old and attending a party that one of the most popular (and handsome) boys in school had held at his house while his parents were out of town. He had a piano in his living room that I had sat down to play and it surprised me when he sat down next to me and said hello.

He actually noticed ME?!

After a moment or two, he slipped his arm over my shoulder and the next thing I knew, his hand had slid down to my chest. I was so shocked I didn't know what to do. That feeling of flattery that he'd noticed me, was instantly replaced with a feeling of disgust and violation. Slowly, I came to my senses and stood up. As I did, he shot me a dirty look.

I was at this party with one of my best friends, Laura. Laura was also the youngest of seven children. She had been adopted when after her mother had given birth to six sons, and decided that she couldn't endure another pregnancy trying for a girl. So Laura had six older brothers, all of whom, at one time or another, were linebackers on our high school football team. They were big. And strong. And fiercely protective of their little sister. (And her friends.)

On that night, two of Laura's older brothers were with us. I whispered to Laura what had happened and Laura whispered it to her brothers. And the next thing I knew, one of the brothers had grabbed the host and was holding him up by his neck and yelling, "Where are your manners, BOY? Is that how you treat a lady?" Romeo didn't look so handsome with his feet dangling off the ground and the coloring of an eggplant. Once they let him down, he came over and apologized to me, profusely.

I was so proud of those guys and wished:

1) That my brothers would do the EXACT same thing if in that situation.

2) That if I ever had sons, they would do the EXACT same thing if in that situation.

A few years ago, when I was working for my current employer, my job was to manage environmental activities associated with gas stations throughout southern California. One day, I drove my bright red convertible up the coast from San Diego to Orange County.

In those days, my modus operandi was to pull on to a site where I knew work was going on, and just observe the activities, before I announced my arrival. Because there were a lot of crews that were doing work on my projects, I didn't know everyone. But I found that once they knew I was there, their attitudes would change. So I preferred to watch people from afar, that didn't realize their client was watching.

So there I am, on this gas station property, filling up my car tank as I quietly observe a massive drill rig, with no less than five men, install groundwater monitoring wells. My plan was that I'd watch them for a few minutes, and then walk over and introduce myself. But before I had the opportunity to do any of that, one of the men started yelling towards me, "HEY BABY! HEY HONEY! HOW ARE YOU DOING, YOU HOT HOT THING!"

My attire consisted of blue jeans, a long sleeve shirt and work boots. But it wouldn't have mattered if I was wearing a string bikini. In my opinion: the presence of a woman in public, whether in work clothes or a bathing suit, driving a minivan or a convertible ... is not a free pass to act uncivilized.

Once the tank was full, I jumped back in my car and drove over to a parking spot. I climbed out of the car and turned to face the drill rig, and the guys started their whooping again.

I was feeling seriously offended. But I imagined I'd feel even worse and likely, intimidated, if I was a female customer visiting this location. I'd probably drive away and never come back. Or, maybe if I had the time or inclination, I'd write a scathing letter to the company.

My blood was boiling as I stood at the back of my car and popped the trunk. I slipped on my bright orange reflective vest and safety glasses. The whooping subsided when the men realized that I was there to work. And I could hear the audible gasps as I put on my hard hat, with the name of my company across the front, and walked over to where they were standing.

"So, this is how you behave around women? Or is this just how you behave on one of my jobs? I certainly hope that you aren't always this disrespectful and degrading…"

They quietly apologized as I sought out the foreman. Other than offering a weak apology, the foreman didn't say anything, until I told him to pack up his rig and leave. That's when he said, "But we're 45 feet on a 50 foot hole … we're almost finished!"

"No," I corrected him. "You ARE finished. And not until your crew learns some common decency and manners will you ever have the opportunity to work on one of these projects again. Bye-Bye. "

What do these stories say about me?

(There were actually five stories that I wrote but I deleted three of them because they're all variations on the same exact theme.)

Depending upon your view on such matters, some might think I'm a humor-lacking, self-righteous, uptight feminist. But I look at the television shows, commercials and billboards. And the fact is, we do live in a male-dominated world. There is a brainwashing of young girls (and boys) that begins early and continues in to adult life. While I don't consider myself overly conservative, when we went shopping for Halloween costumes last year and I saw things like this and this for "tween" girls (i.e., 10-12 years old!) … I promised myself I'd never go Halloween costume shopping again. From this point on, we'll make our costumes at home.

It happens when you're driving and men shout, "Stupid WOMAN drivers!!" and recently, I read a story about an 8-year old girl that was spat upon by ultra-Orthodox Jewish men that insulted her, "and called her a prostitute because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code."

Whoa. "Godly" men, spitting on a young girl and calling her a prostitute? It's a shame Laura's big brothers weren't around to witness that.

Because of my predominantly math and science education and engineering career (and my own personal struggles in school), I am frequently asked to volunteer as a role-model for girls. I love serving in this capacity because I do believe that academically, young girls can accomplish anything that young boys can accomplish and can go on to achieve great things with their careers.

But of course, therein lies my greatest challenge. I have steadily been on the rise in my career and feel the pull to continue on and pave the way for other females. And yet, there are four little people whose childhoods I'm largely missing. If not by physical absence, by mental absence because my mind is almost always consumed with "other" thoughts. What I've long realized, but have displaced, is that the pull is even greater to watch them grow up.