Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Whup Ass

When I was in the 6th grade, I was timid and brainy. I wore blue plastic-rimmed glasses and boat shoes and carried an oversized black L.L.Bean backpack that people frequently commented was larger than I was. I had crushes on bad boys from afar, and my favorite bands were the Beatles and New Kids on the Block. Once, I forgot my math homework and got a detention, and I've never forgotten the humiliation I experienced that day.

The three girls in the 6th grade class I am substitute teaching couldn't be more different from what I was like at that age. They walk into the classroom in the morning in tight jeans, turn on a YouTube video of Mariah Carey or Rihanna and flop facedown onto the couch. (Yes, YouTube is still allowed, at certain times of the day – NOT during lessons. I have to pick my battles.) They talk a lot about boobs and cute boys (I talked a lot about these subjects at that age too, but never at school and NEVER in front of boys). When I asked one girl for her homework yesterday, she stared at me and replied, “I didn't do it, because I had my singing lesson and that is WAY more important.” They tease the male 25% of the class constantly, and order him to sharpen pencils and pick up after them; he always complies with their demands. (I put a stop to some of their more ridiculous behavior, like having him practice singing songs for their spring concert while they criticize him, and implemented a behavior plan that involves me taking away minutes from a short end-of-day movie time when they are disrespectful and adding minutes when they work well together and are polite.)

Yesterday the kids were working on making posters for a fundraiser they're doing this weekend when I told them they had five minutes to clean up for math. The minutes ticked by. I gave them a few reminders. Finally, the five minutes were over, and the poster materials had NOT been cleaned up, so I took the posters away from them and said, “Chop chop! It's math time!”

It was at this point that all hell broke loose. The girls literally responded as though I had walked up to them and slapped them. There were tears, and protests – even from a child who had been out of the room when it happened. Her explanation? “When someone does something to hurt my friends, it hurts me too.” I couldn't help but let a snort escape when she said that.

And then something amazing happened. I told the two directors of the school about the incident, and they sprang into action. They sat down with me and the four kids and told them that things were going to change. They assigned them new spots throughout the school for reading and writing so that they will be as separate from each other as possible. They told them that, for the time being at least, the kids should consider their spring concert cancelled. When the kids tried to speak up to defend themselves, the co-directors responded, “No. You don't get a chance to respond. Your behavior has been indefensible. There is no excuse for rudeness and disrespect toward each other and your teachers.”

So, despite the fact that I am now spending all my days with four impressionable youngsters who think that I am the Antichrist, I kind of feel like I'm in heaven. Last year, when I had problems with my students, I consistently got the same message: “Ms. Heathen, you need to handle your class yourself. You can't send them out of the classroom no matter how disruptive they are. You just have to make it work.” (That was on a good day; on a bad day, the same message was conveyed by my assistant principal coming into my classroom and screaming at me in front of my class.) Not only was this unhelpful, but the students and their parents could perceive that teachers were not supported by the administration, and it made it all the less likely that anything would change.

My 6th graders, on the other hand, got the clear message that all the adults in the building are not going to support their behavior, and right now they think we're all evil. That is fine with me. I'm planning to continue to give my class a healthy dose of whup ass until their behavior changes. It may happen while I'm there, and it may not. But just think what monstrous adults they'll turn into if I don't try!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Hormones, Pimples and Crushes or: The 6th Grade

On Friday, I taught my first schoolday in seven months. (Well, I have done some teaching in my sister Ms. Swamp's classroom, but this was the first full day and, more importantly, the first PAID day.) It's a month-long gig I got substitute teaching in a 6th grade classroom at a private school while their teacher recovers from shoulder surgery, and... well, I'll just say I smell a lot of blog posts coming out of the experience.

The class has a grand total of 4 pupils. This is 1/6th the size of my class in Brooklyn, and it is hard to really think of them as a “class.” It feels more like babysitting, especially given some of what goes on there.

For instance, each day a different child has the privilege of being the “class DJ.” They choose the music to play, and I'm not only talking about lunchtime or other downtime throughout the day. They play music ALL DAY LONG: during math, science, writing... you get the picture. The way that they play music is that they go on YouTube and play videos there. This leads to two issues (on top of the blasting music, which is in itself a big issue in my mind): first, that means that about every 3 ½ minutes the “DJ” is getting up to put on a new video. Second, there is a music video playing constantly on the screen, which is a huge visual distraction in addition to all the audio distractions going on.

Suffice it to say that this is not something that is going to continue under my watch.

Their teacher has been teaching for a long time, and I suspect he may be burnt out. I also don't think he particularly likes this group of kids, and I can empathize with that; it happens to everyone sometimes. It must be frustrating to teach a group so small it doesn't really feel like teaching. I know it sounds great to have a small class, and last year a class of four was beyond my wildest dreams. But it would actually be better to have a few more, maybe 10 or 12, in order to actually be able to have discussions and feel more serious.

Still, I think the situation is a bit shocking and ultimately inexcusable. Mr. Burnout, their teacher, has always taught a year-long social studies unit on the labor movement and a science unit on electricity in the 6th grade. This year, he abandoned both topics a couple of weeks before I arrived. “They just weren't into it,” he explained. Instead, the kids chose topics to research independently. Two students are studying someone named Justin Bieber, who I had never heard of before but suspect I will be hearing a lot about in the next few weeks. He is 14, and became famous after a couple of videos he posted of himself singing on YouTube went viral. He recently released his first CD.

I'm still figuring out how I'm going to handle all of this, and I also need to do some more thinking about how I will deal with some of the complex gender issues going on (there's only one boy in the class, and the other 75% of the class pick on him mercilessly). It's not all going to be fun; teaching never is. But despite all the drawbacks it sure feels good to be back in the classroom.

Justin. Need I say more?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

More Neighbor Tales

I was finally writing that long-promised letter to my Wise Woman today when I was interrupted by a little drip noise coming from my computer. For those few of you who are not on Facebook, a little drip noise means that someone is trying to chat with you. While many people sign out of Facebook chat for fear of being bothered by people who they don't want to chat with, I find that the benefits outweigh the negatives, and enjoy an occasional Facebook chat (and also, I have plenty of time to spare so I'm less protective of it than others might be).

I was not disappointed. “I miss you!” read the chat, from one of my former neighbors in Brooklyn, Trey. “How are things in Boston? Let me know next time you're back here. I be bored out of my mind these days! Keep in touch.”

It brought a little tear to my eye. Trey holds a special place in my heart, not only because he greeted me every day with a huge smile and a “What's new, Heath? What kind of crazy shit did your kids do today?” but also because, once upon a time, he heroically saved my lovebird Green Bean's life.

It happened over a year ago, in October '08, back when things still seemed peachy between me and La Moustache. Moustache was out that evening at a business dinner, and I was busily putting together my homework packet for the following week. I was crouched on the floor next to my printer, printing out pages, and Bean was next to me. He is very interested in anything that moves or makes noise, and he was hopping around the printer, curiously watching the cartridge slide back and forth and pages spew out.

He hopped a little closer. I was making last-minute edits on my computer and paid him no heed. He got up onto the shelf where the pages come out and ducked his head down to get a really good luck inside the machine. “Arrête ça! Stop it. I'm trying to work,” I said distractedly, brushing at him ineffectively. All of a sudden I heard a terrible squawk. My little birdie had put his head INSIDE the printer as a page was printing, and when the page was done, the cartridge slid back into place, trapping his head behind it. He was terrified, and flapping madly.

I tried pulling at him gently, to no avail. He was really stuck. As he continued to flap his wings, feathers went flying, and when a small blood feather came out he started to bleed. It was only a couple drops, but I had read many times how a small amount of blood loss could result in death. I rushed to the kitchen and grabbed a box of corn starch, which stops the blood flow, and poured it liberally over the frantic bird, printer, and homework sheets scattered nearby. Then, unsure what to do next, I called La Moustache. “It's an emergency! Come home now!” I said, my tone of fear underscored by the horrifying sounds Bean was emitting from the bowels of the printer. “But I just ordered dinner,” he said. “You really have to come,” I replied, and he relented. “I'll grab a cab. In the meantime, call Big Guy.”

Big Guy, for those of you who don't remember, was my Brooklyn landlord, a gem of a man. I called him up and briefly described my emergency. “I'm not at the house right now, but I'll be there soon and I'll come right up,” he told me.

Sure enough, he showed up a few minutes later with two friends in tow: Trey and Fat John. As soon as the three of them arrived, Trey took charge. “Do you care about the printer?” he asked. “No,” I replied quickly. “Destroy it. I don't care. Just get the bird out.” “Okay. Do you have a saw of some kind?” I tried to think if there was one, but the sharpest think I could think of was my bread knife. I ran into the kitchen and emerged with my dangerously sharp Wusthof bread knife.

Trey set to work expertly, and in no time flat, my printer was being sawed in two. The other two men stood around watching, no doubt as amazed as I was. Then, with a final flap and a squawk, Bean was free and flying crazily around the room, his little face smeared with black ink. He did a few laps around and then settled on Fat John's shoulder; surprised, Fat John reacted by screaming and hitting the floor. Big Guy, Trey and I burst into relieved guffaws as I rescued Green Bean and returned him to his cage, where he promptly fell into a deep slumber.

By the time La Moustache got home, the corn starch had been cleaned off the floor, the printer was outside in the garbage bin, a frozen pizza was heating up in the oven to make up for his missed dinner, and everything was almost back to normal. The only difference was that poor little Bean, in addition to being blacker than usual, was very subdued and quiet. This lasted for a couple of days, and then he was back to his chirpy self. By now, I think he's completely forgotten about it, although I still keep him far away from my printer. But I'll never forget Trey's heroic response. Next time I have an emergency, I sure hope he's around.
A recovered Haricot decorates the top of the Christmas tree in December '08.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

My Other French Aunt and Uncle

In the 1970s, my parents spent two years in West Africa as peace corps volunteers. While they were there, my mom's sister joined them for a visit, met a Sean Connery-lookalike Frenchman completing his “service militaire,” and the rest is history. I have two lovely French cousins who are among my favorite people in the world, and visits to see my aunt and uncle in Brittany are heavenly, relaxing orgies of delicious food, full-bodied wine and good conversation.

This past September, I acquired a second set of French aunt-and-uncles. (After all, one really can't have too many.) By rights, they should belong to La Moustache, since my new Oncle D is Moustache's mother's brother, and Tante M is his girlfriend. However, I've adopted them instead.

Tante M is a teacher, like me, but she retired last year. Thinking she'd be sad when the new schoolyear started, she and Oncle D planned a visit to New York in September. Hence they unwittingly ended up chez nous in Brooklyn, right smack in the middle of our breakup.

This could have been a very awkward situation, and I won't lie, there were moments when it was. I was alternately furious and devastated, and would sometimes pull Moustache into our bedroom so I could vent my tears and recriminations away from Oncle D and Tante M. At first, we pretended that everything was fine between us. However, one day when Moustache was at work, I was talking to Oncle D and Tante M about my career, and told them that I might be moving to Boston. Oncle D interjected, “But what about Moustache? It would be so hard for the two of you to be apart!” I paused, unsure what to say. Then I decided to go with the truth: “Well, you see, Moustache might be leaving me anyway. He's thinking about going on a trip around the world, and he doesn't want me to come.”

I would have stopped there, but Oncle D and Tante M's reaction was empathetic and sincere, and they encouraged me to say more. They told me that they couldn't imagine going through so many difficult things simultaneously. They talked to me about their own past relationships and divorces, and confided that therapy had helped them figure out what they wanted out of a relationship and how to move on when it wasn't working; I shared stories about my own Wise Woman, and told them of my frustration that Moustache refused to get therapy or talk about his feelings. A few days later, Tante M stepped into my bedroom with me and said, “I can see how sad you are. Let it out.” I cried and cried as she rocked me in her arms.

I left shortly thereafter, fleeing to a friend's house to avoid having to spend more time with La Moustache. Oncle D and Tante M encouraged me: “You can do it! Just don't let yourself look back. Keep up your strength.” They called every couple of days while they were still in Brooklyn, and we met up for coffee. After they went back to France, they continued to support me via e-mail; Oncle D even sent me a recommendation for a book about divorce that he thought I should read.

La Moustache's parents used to come for long visits at least once a year, and I eagerly looked forward to them. I was particularly close with his mother, who I considered to be almost like a second mother or an auntie to me, and losing that relationship was one of the many hard things about our breakup. I feel so lucky that Oncle D and Tante M came along when they did, and that I can maintain a relationship with them since they're not as close to La Moustache.

A couple of days ago, Oncle D posted a video on his Facebook page with a message beneath it: “It's for you Heathen.” It was a video of a French singer singing a song entitled, “Le premier jour (du reste de ta vie)” – “The First Day (of the Rest of Your Life).” It's totally cheesy, and I'm sure it would make La Moustache roll his eyes and make a snide comment. And I love it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wait, What's This Called Again?

My name is Heathen, and I have a disability. It's not a physical disability, nor has it ever been diagnosed by a professional. It's self-diagnosed, but that doesn't make it any less debilitating.

My disability is a condition called “word retrieval deficit.” I think everyone has it sometimes. You know the word or name, it's on the tip of your tongue... but your brain can't quite formulate it, and you feel like an idiot. (Sometimes it's also referred to as TOT, for "tip of the tongue.") I once saw a preview for a documentary about the tobacco industry featuring an interview with a beauty pageant winner. In answer to a question, she said something along the lines of, “Well, the thing is, we're just really dependent on tobacco for the... umm, the... what's that word?” The interviewer supplied it: “Economy.” The audience in the movie theater erupted in laughter. And I thought, “Hey, just cause she forgot the word 'economy' doesn't mean she's dumb!”

It easily could have been me in that clip. I'm pretty sure some people have encountered my word retrieval issue and thought I was missing a couple of marbles. For instance, for years I worked once a month as a check-out girl at a co-op I belonged to (it's kind of famous, some might even say infamous... you may have heard of it). I loved my job, and often thought to myself, “I wish I could do this full-time. I love chatting with people and asking about their plans for the food they're buying, and it's SO much easier than teaching!”

However, there was one aspect to my check-out girl job that I hated. Every time anyone bought fruits or vegetables, which was pretty often, I'd have to look them up on my little computer alphabetically. It was here that my disability became a problem. I'm not only talking about rare foods like rutabagas or kumquats; I'm talking avocados (and it's a rare co-op shopper who goes home avocado-less). I dreaded Brussels sprouts. Cabbage was my nemesis. I think it even happened once with broccoli.

Of course, I would spot the problem food quickly and save it for last, racking my brain for the name as I scanned barcodes. Then I would pick up the food and tap through veggie names on my screen while frowning, as though I knew what I was doing but the computer was acting up. Sometimes I was able to save myself this way, by coming across the word in the computer. More often than not, though, I would give up and smile charmingly at the customer. “What's this called again?” I would say, trying to pretend it was a normal question. Usually, they would pause with disbelief, not sure if I was joking, then say “Umm... cabbage?” like they were trying to figure out what the trick was, or wondering if this seemingly normal girl in front of them was actually mentally disabled.

A few years back, I took a “science for teachers” course in Costa Rica (best course EVER). One day, our assignment was to apprentice with a local craftsperson, and I was assigned, along with my sweet young classmate Grayson, to a furniture maker. It was great: we spent the day sanding and sawing, and by the end of it we had built a table. Grayson had taken about 8 years of Spanish in school, and I have never studied it, but he was very shy, and I ended up doing most of the talking (I'm good at getting by in languages even when I don't speak them). At one point, the furniture maker wanted to ask Grayson a question and turned to me to translate, but couldn't recall Grayson's name. “Como se llama?” he asked me. All of a sudden I had no idea. “No entiendo,” I replied. “Co-mo se ll-a-ma?” he repeated, very slowly. I cast a horrified glance at Grayson; why didn't he answer? Surely he must understand at least THIS much Spanish! The situation got even worse when the furniture maker managed to utter his first English words of the day: “Wat hees name?” In my mind, I was trying to go through as many male names as I could: Sam? Chris? Michael? Robert? Of course, I was NEVER going to come up with Grayson. Thankfully, at this point Grayson saved me by supplying the furniture maker with his name.

I like to think that I've learned to cope pretty well. Before interviews, I mentally go over words I'll probably need, like “constructivism” and “balanced literacy” (just now, it took me about five minutes to come up with that last one; I had to go on and then come back). When I'm taking a class and want to share my thoughts, I carefully think through what I'm going to say before I raise my hand. But still, there are moments when you just need to use the word “cabbage” and discover with horror that your mind is completely empty.

I've stopped feeling bad about it. It's even happened to me in interviews, and I just laugh and say, “Sorry, I have problems with word retrieval,” and move on. After all, it's the 21st century. Everybody has a disability.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Meaningful Work

When I last spoke to my Wise Woman, it was my penultimate evening in New York. As we closed the conversation, she said to me, “Send me a letter in a month and a half or so, around the holidays. Let me know how things are going for you.”

I haven't done so yet. I did break down and call her shortly after I arrived in Boston, so she has had news of me, but I haven't gotten it together to write her a coherent account of my post-New York life. Partly that is because I am not entirely sure how things are going: am I adjusting to life in Boston, putting myself out there, building new relationships and finding things to do? Or am I a depressed, directionless couch potato who spends way too much time with my pet lovebird and obsessively Googles my ex?

Perhaps a little of both. In many ways, things are progressing well for me. I signed up for a pottery class, and go to my new yoga studio once or twice a week. I've gone on two dates so far (and have more coming up), and I feel quite satisfied with the amount of attention I've been getting from men recently. I had one interview this past week and have another coming up next week. Occasionally I visit my sister's classroom and do what I can to help her with her own rascally bunch of little heathens. I've reached out to acquaintances who live in Boston to ask if they want to be my friend (not in those words though, cause that would be awkward), and I've poached friends from my sister. I passed two of the four teacher tests in Massachusetts, and last time I checked my bank account I was still in the black.

But still, something is missing. Something very, very important. And that something is not a boyfriend; I've been quite happy in the past without one, and my self-worth is not dependent on the man in my life. It is, however, dependent on my job. Having a job I take pride in is what gives me a sense of purpose in life, a structure to my existence, and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. While I've never exactly taken it lightly, this forced period of unemployment has made me realize just how much I value my career.

I recently read “Not Becoming My Mother” by Ruth Reichl, which is a thoughtful reflection on her mother's life. In her previous books Reichl had portrayed her mother as an oddball, annoyingly high-maintenance, and possibly mentally ill. She used to serve extremely bizarre food when Reichl was a child, like moldy chicken slathered with chocolate sauce and topped with raisins; clearly, Reichl's subsequent career was, at least in part, a reaction to this strange relationship with food (Reichl was the editor of Gourmet until it closed, and used to be a restaurant critic at the New York Times). Now she's taken a look back and realized that her mother, who was born in 1908, lived a frustrated existence that caused her erratic behavior, and that things could have been very different for her if she had been born in a different era. She didn't have an unhappy marriage. On the contrary, her husband was supportive and loving, and encouraged her to work outside the home. However, it was the common belief at the time that the ultimate happiness for a woman was to be a housewife, and her unhappiness stemmed from the fact that she didn't realize until too late that this wasn't the case for her. Toward the end of her life she wrote: “I am so sorry I did not pursue a career. If I teach Ruthy nothing else, I must make her see this. In the end, it is meaningful work – serving people – that matters most. It is what we were made for.”

The description of Reichl's mother's life brings to mind the women of Mad Men, which I have been quite addicted to of late. It is painful to watch poised, intelligent, Bryn Mawr-educated Betty Draper sit like a beautiful doll at her kitchen table, chain-smoking cigarettes and gossiping pettily about the neighbors while her black maid raises her children. She has so much potential (and so, by the way, does her maid), and yet goes around saying things she clearly doesn't believe, like “Can you imagine being single at our age? How awful!” (In Season 2, when she said that, she was – ahem! - 30.) Like Mim Reichl, Betty's unhappiness manifests itself in mental illness. She has panic attacks, and goes to see a psychiatrist to deal with them; after each session, her husband calls the psychiatrist and is filled in on what happened.

It's not that I think it's impossible for women to be happy who don't work outside the home. I can only speak for myself, and would never presume to know what works for other people. But I am very thankful that we live in a time when it's not only acceptable for women to have careers, it's encouraged, and I look forward eagerly to the moment when my own career will be back on track. Were I to have been born at the same time as Mim Reichl or Betty Draper, I would doubtless have been one of the women described in this advertisement, a quote from Reichl's book: “A fifties ad for Dexedrine pictured a sad, pretty young woman holding a dish towel and surrounded by dirty dishes. ‘Why is this woman tired?’ asked the copy. ‘Many of your patients – particularly housewives – are crushed under a load of dull, routine duties that leave them in a state of mental and emotional fatigue. For these patients, you may find Dexedrine an ideal prescription. Dexedrine will give them a feeling of energy and well-being, renewing their interest in life and living.”

Anyway, I should probably buckle down and write that letter. After all, one can't neglect one's Wise Woman – or at least I can't. It's just not a modality that works for me.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A New Year

I'm happy to report that, contrary to 2009, 2010 is treating me very well so far. I spent a few days in New York over New Year's, and the year started for me with an excellent Felice Brothers concert (they're back in the groove after the difficult loss of Simon, the hot brother, from the band) and breakfast in bed on New Year's day provided by my friend and hostess Miami Nice. Shortly before midnight on New Year's Eve, I received a text message from my sister informing me that she and her friends were burning pieces of paper with things written on them that they wanted to leave behind in '09, and they had been sure to include the two people who had ruined the year for me: La Moustache and Godzilla. I was filled with joy that my life is now free of both of them, and hopeful that they will one day get what's coming to them.

On the second day of the twenty-teens, or “the age of Refarling” as I like to think of it, Miami and I headed to Spa Castle with a couple of other friends. Spa Castle is not just another spa. It's an experience. It's located in College Point, Queens, a neighborhood I didn't know existed before my first trip there, but which now holds mythical significance in my mind. The spa consists of two floors of baths, one of which is separated by gender and has a no-clothes policy, and the other is half indoors and half outdoors with a view of the Queensborough Bridge (at least, that's what I assume it is; correct me if I'm wrong). Another level is filled with saunas of a variety of themes, including a salt sauna with salt walls, an LED sauna where one gets light therapy under brightly colored lamps, and a gold sauna lined with, that's right, real gold. (Being a New Englander, my favorite is Iceland, with ice walls and a temperature of 34 degrees.) Finally there is the food court filled with delectable Korean delicacies like Korean sundae, a delicious mix of shaved ice, fresh fruit, chocolate sauce, vanilla ice cream, red beans, and chewy little rice thingamajiggies called mochi. There are also nooks scattered throughout the building where people can nap, sit under purifying lights, get foot massages, do yoga, watch TV, and scrub their bodies in front of mirrors.

Unfortunately for me, when I was preparing to head to New York I forgot to pack my bathing suit. Miami Nice was unfazed. “No problem,” she said with her usual cheeriness, “you can borrow one from me.” When I mentioned this plan to Miami's boyfriend, his eyes widened. “Your bodies types are very... different,” he said.

He was being diplomatic. My body is like Ally McBeal's minus the anorexia. Miami's is more like Joan Holloway from Mad Men, which is why she dressed up as Joan for Halloween (I was a lumberjack). When I tried on her bikini, I looked like a two-year-old dressed in her mother's bra. “It makes you look like you have big boobs!” chirped Miami, lying through her teeth.

Luckily, she unearthed a sports bra, which, while not exactly flattering, at least didn't look indecent. We happily trekked out to Queens and dove into the pools. After a few minutes, I noticed that my friends were giggling. I wasn't sure why, but I was euphoric enough that I joined in. Suddenly I saw something big and black out of my peripheral vision. The jacuzzi jets were blowing at just the right angle, and my sports bra top had blown up like a balloon, as though I were the Nutty Professor coming off his fat meds. All of a sudden I looked like I had a bust bigger than Dolly Parton's.

Remind me to pack my bathing suit next time I go to New York.

The spot where my bikini top blew up

Monday, January 4, 2010

Feminism, Revisited

When I was in the 7th grade, I was a raging feminist. At the time, I had a sweet, somewhat troubled young boyfriend, the Modern Jewish Boy. I adored him, and spent hours on the phone with him voicing my opinions about relations between the sexes (a subject that, at age 13, I felt I understood quite well). This was shortly after the Anita Hill allegations about Clarence Thomas, and I remember venting to him how shocking it was that a man who treated women as Thomas had could be allowed on the Supreme Court. It was also the year that Bill Clinton was elected President, and I became a devoted fan of Hillary. I wished fervently that she could one day, perhaps in 1996, be elected President, and I wrote her a letter to tell her so. On Halloween, I dressed up as Hillary and went trick-or-treating with the MJB and my friend Ms. B, who was dressed as Bill.

Three years later, now age 16, I reunited with the Modern Jewish Boy. During one of our early phone calls, his mom interrupted us to pass along a question through him: was I still a feminist? “No,” I replied, “I'm over that stage.” I cringed inwardly as I recalled those long-ago conversations. “Feminism is not a stage,” his mom told him to tell me in reply.

Despite her advice, I continued to not worry much about sexism or women's rights. I didn't consider myself to be either a feminist or a non-feminist; I believed in women's equality, of course, but I didn't see sexism as a big problem in this country. When my sister became a women's studies major and stopped shaving her legs in college, I scoffed at her and dismissed her views as extremist. I worked as an intern for a while at an African American historical house museum, lived in a largely black neighborhood in Brooklyn, taught a lot of black kids who lived in homeless shelters and whose futures looked pretty bleak, and all of these experiences made me think that racism was a much bigger problem in this day and age than sexism. When my friend Miami Nice announced that she'd be voting for Hillary Clinton in the New York State primary, I tried to dissuade her by telling her that it was more important for our country to have a black president than a woman.

All of this changed for me when I realized with a sickening shock that I spent the past three years living with a man who not only didn't respect me, but didn't respect my gender. In part my ignorance can be attributed to his skill at hiding it, but I have to admit that there were signs; he made disparaging comments about women he knew, mostly about their physical appearance. It's not that I let him get away with it entirely. I called him out on it, and told him it's not okay to talk that way about women (or anyone, but he never commented on men's bodies). But I also glossed it over in my mind, chalking it up to his Europeanness. It sounds so naive now, but it never occurred to me that he actually might think women were lesser than men. There have been times in the past few months when I have used the word “misogynist” to describe Moustache, but this doesn't accurately describe him. He doesn't hate women, he just doesn't accord them the same respect as men. As my awareness has heightened, I've begun to realize that this subtle, insidious sexism is more widespread than I thought.

And perhaps I've even been guilty of it myself. When La Moustache announced that he'd be heading off on his grand tour, my immediate reaction was two-fold. I worried that our relationship was ending and felt heart-broken that he wanted to go on a trip without me. But a series of questions also leaped into my mind: “If Moustache leaves, who will change the oil in my car? Who will wash my laundry? Who will do my taxes? Who will pay for my car insurance?” And I have to admit that this was a big reason why I didn't want him to leave: I didn't want to face the prospect of doing all these tasks myself, and I wasn't sure I could do them (or at least do them as well as he could). I am grateful for this forced reminder that I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself.

La Moustache has many admirers, including friends who know both of us. Some of these people have posted updates from his blog on Facebook, and added their own words of encouragement and support: “Good luck, Moustache! We hope 2010 will be full of adventure and joy for you. You have so many people back home who love you and are thinking of you!' (Please note that La Moustache is not on Facebook, so he has no way to actually read these words.) Upon reflection, I believe that some of these people are clueless, and don't realize how he treated me; perhaps I even gave them the impression that I was fine with his trip as I attempted to walk the fine line between conveying that I am not okay with his actions and being a bitter ex-girlfriend. However, other people know how he treated me, and either don't have a problem with it or think that he was a jerk, but that's not a reason to stop being friends with him. After all, he's famous now, and maybe if they're nice to him he might invite them to join him for part of his epic journey!

I've been nostalgic for Brooklyn lately, and there are a few musicians who remind me of my former home who have been getting frequent play on my ipod, such as Jay Z, “Best I Ever Had” by Drake, and Beyonce. Among these, I'm embarrassed to say, is Chris Brown. As I bought his album I thought to myself, “He's an asshole and I wish I weren't giving him my money, but listening to his music doesn't mean I approve of men who beat up their girlfriends.” In retrospect, I realize that by buying his music and listening to it I am tacitly supporting his behavior in the same way that people who read Moustache's blog and pass it on are supporting his behavior. I can't un-buy it, but I can and will throw it vehemently into my little iTunes trashcan and listen to some Rihanna instead. Us women gotta stick together.