a bougie woman

Terry Gross interviewed Lena Dunham on NPR’s Fresh Air. During the interview, she played a clip of a scene from Girls, which Dunham then expanded on. The scene is one of my favourites from Season 1, and I liked Dunham’s elaboration so much I typed it out for you. Here it is…

Clip — Lena Dunham’s character Hannah, speaking to the guy she’s interested in: “I don’t even want a boyfriend. I just want someone who wants to hang out all the time, and thinks I’m the best person in the world, and wants to have sex with only me. And it makes me feel very stupid to tell you this because it makes me sound like a girl, who wants to like go to brunch and I really don’t want to go to brunch, and I don’t want you to like sit on the couch while I shop, or like even meet my friends. I don’t even want that.”

Lena Dunham: I think that there there’s a way that Hannah – and by extension myself – she has trouble with certain kinds of earnest expressions and maybe that’s a generational thing, maybe that’s her own anxiety that if she expresses herself in a true way she’s going to get shut down. But I think it was important for her, even as she said this incredibly sort of sweet, heartfelt thing, which is ‘I want you to want to spend time with just me, I want you to want to be with me’ I mean, she wants just what everybody wants which is –

Terry Gross: She wants a monogamous boyfriend.

Dunham: A monogamous loving partner, and yet she feels that she needs to explain that while she wants the thing everybody else wants, she is not like everybody else. And I think that is the important distinction to her, is that she thinks with the desire for a boyfriend comes all of these other trappings of being a sort of like bougie woman that she doesn’t think of herself as. She’s like ‘I’m a writer, and a thinker, and so anything you equate with being a boyfriend is not what you’re going to get with me.’ Even though once they were together she probably would want him to meet her friends, she probably would want him to sit on the couch while they shopped, and, god forbid, she would want him to go to brunch – but in this moment she sort of needs to define herself as this completely other type of woman, even as she wants what women want.

This show is uncomfortably accurate. Lena Dunham, hats off.

How To Be A Woman

We should all be feminists. Feminism basically means that you believe both sexes to be equal, that someone’s opportunities and rights should not be determined by their gender. (Let’s not get into the debate over the meanings of the words gender and sex.)

That said, feminism has become a dirty word — or at least, if you label yourself a feminist, you risk being seen as a raging man-hater.

I think Caitlin Moran can change all that. She has a new book out. Read her interview with The Hairpin.

Choice excerpt: “This whole sassiness thing – everything’s got to be sarcastic, everything’s got to be knowing, everything’s got to be cynical. You’ve got to be on top of your shit twenty-four hours a day. THAT is exhausting. It’s just far better to go, you know what? I’m just basically a monkey in a dress, and the best I can hope for every day is just to be nice, to smile as much as possible, to be gentle, try and be a bit understanding, work really hard, go and smell some flowers, have a cup of tea, ring your mum if you get on with her, just kind of dial it down a bit. There’s a more sustainable idea of being a woman rather than feeling like you’re in a fucking movie twenty-four hours a day.”

Also I love Kate Beaton, and I especially love this comic (which is related to feminism) and this one (which isn’t).

takes time to tinker

“What is extraordinary about this story is that Richard has had no books or access to technical information. He says he does not know where he gets the ideas or the knowledge, and yes, he has given him self plenty of electric shocks.  His father James is proud of his son, and has given him space to tinker and collect bits of gadgetry.”

Things I like about the story I just read on AfriGadget, titled 13 year old Kenyan innovator saves cattle from lions with lights:

a) Richard himself, for being exactly the kind of person we need to hear more about when we talk about sub-Saharan Africa. And at age 13, no less.

b) The dangling modifier. I was really hoping he was saving his cattle from lions that had mastered electricity.

Richard Turere, 13, from Empakesi, Kenya, brings the cows home for the night. Photo: AfriGadget

a semantical bloodbath

I take Jonathan Goldstein to bed on a regular basis. Well, him, or Ira Glass. Or possibly Paul Kennedy. Public radio geeks know exactly what I mean; everyone else is thinking I should consider being a little more modest in mixed company.

Last night, I was enchanted by one of the pieces Jonathan Goldstein read on a May 2010 episode of CBC Radio’s WireTap. A little research turns up the fact that it was also part of a 2001 episode of This American Life. Read it below, or even better, listen — it’s the kind of writing best told in the author’s voice. (It’s the first segment, just sit tight through the promo.) If you’d rather read, here goes:

This first piece that I’m going to read is about love. But, um, aren’t they all.

If there was no such word as love, our vocabulary would be richer, and we’d have to struggle harder to find the right words. Everyone would be so long-winded and Shakespearean in their range of emotional expression. The word love came along and wiped out all sorts of terms in a semantical bloodbath.

Without the word love, people would speak in terms of sensations, like the sensation of standing waist-deep in a tub of warm plum sauce. Or the sensation of being tickled on the back of the knees. Some would say they felt like they had just swallowed a honey-soaked boxing glove, and others might say that they were feeling like their guts had been yanked out and spread across the kitchen floor.

Without the word love, you would get wedding invitations that would say things like, “On July 15, join us at the Five Holy Martyrs Church of Worship to help celebrate Barry Lyscinzy’s feeling of aimless goodwill that he’s decided to direct onto Robin Krupka, who’s receptive to the idea of being with a man she’s fairly certain will never inflict hurt on her.”

Sometimes we call something love because we don’t know what else to call it. When I first started dating Holly, there was one night where I was double-riding her back home from downtown on my bike. And she kissed my neck and rubbed my back through my t-shirt. We were going uphill, and she knew I could use all the encouragement I could get. We had spent the evening with some friends we didn’t especially like, just because we didn’t have the heart to say no to them. “We should go out more often,” she said from behind me. “The way I hate everybody makes me love you more.” Was that a moment of love, or merely an instance of lack of hate?

With Christiane, I thought I couldn’t be in love because her knees were too big. They were the size of grapefruits, and I could not see myself being in love with a woman whose knees were that big. They were ludicrous really. My thinking was that it was a good thing they were so ludicrous because they kept me firmly anchored. If I thought for even a second that I might be falling in love, all I had to do was think of those big, fat knees of hers, and then, one day, I found myself kissing them. I had to leap over a great inner hurdle to get to that, but it wasn’t love that was on the other side. It was just self-congratulatory pats on my own back over how I could move beyond pettiness like that.

When I was 16, there was a summer I spent in Wildwood, New Jersey, where one night while walking down the boardwalk feeling lonely and depressed, a girl a few years older than me came spinning down the boardwalk, her arms spread out. She came right towards me, and then, when we were face to face, she kissed me. Just like that. Because she was drunk or stoned, but she had kissed me. For the rest of the summer, I couldn’t pass a woman on the boardwalk without thinking that we should somehow be meeting in a kiss, that that’s how life should really be.

In that moment, where our lips touched, the way it suddenly brought into alignment the private, unspeakable hopefulness in the heart with the uncontrollableness of the outside world, it felt like as surely as anything else I’ve ever experienced, a moment of love. I say this as an adult who has had serious relationships since, and I can’t think of another word but love to describe what I felt that day on the boardwalk. And that was it. She just walked on.

When I was a little kid, my mother’s favorite thing was to crane her head through a door frame or around a corner and bite me or my sister on the ass while explaining, “Boy, is this a tuckus.” I spent much of my childhood walking around our house always on my guard, always feeling like she could strike at any moment. She was never really any good with words, so this was sort of her version of a love sonnet. At least that’s how I’ve chosen to see it. You could also say it was filthy and damaging, but if you want to see something as love, or even need to see it as love, and you call it love, it feels a lot more like love.

belly laughs at twenty to nine

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, The Current had a discussion about online dating this morning. The host, Anna Maria Tremonti, interviewed a couple who met in an Internet chat room in 1996. He lived in the U.K. and I didn’t catch where she lived, but I think it was in Canada. After a week of chatting, he bought her a ticket to visit him in England. An excerpt of the interview, paraphrased:

Anna Maria: Weren’t you afraid he was an axe murder?
Her: That’s what my friends were worried about, but I figured that an axe murderer doesn’t buy someone a plane ticket.
Him: Plus I’ve never hurt an axe in my life!

I laughed most of the way to work.

Speaking of axe murdering… well, murdering, anyway… here’s a cheerful (but sort of fascinating) read.

sleepwalk with me

Mike Birbiglia’s story in the “Fear of Sleep” episode of This American Life remains one of the most memorable stories I’ve ever heard on the show. Now, it’s a feature film. I’ve only seen one scene from Sleepwalk With Me, so I can’t vouch for the film beyond saying a) now I want to see the rest of it, and b) it is premièring at Sundance today.

The set-up: in his early twenties, Birbiglia had a series of increasingly spectacular sleepwalking episodes, stemming from the quintessential anxiety surrounding realizing you’re now an “adult” (whatever that is). True story.

Ira Glass wrote a blog post about the film, here.

dangerous women

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.

~ Thucydides

Back in October I spent an energizing and inspiring day with 33 women committed to a single goal: reducing rape, assault and gender-based violence in their neighbourhoods of Nairobi. They were learning not only how to kick some serious ass, but also how to teach other women to do the same.

at the training hall in Korogocho, women defend themselves against attacks from behind

My article on the course was published in the features section this weekend, but here it is in a nutshell: US-based No Means No Worldwide is a train-the-trainer initiative started by Lee Sinclair, a microloan-officer-turned-self-defence-teacher. Instead of  flying trainers to Nairobi from Boston or San Francisco to teach women in slums how to defend themselves, NMNW trains Kenyan women to become self-defence teachers themselves. These newly-minted trainers go back to their communities and spread the gospel.

The women featured here are the first graduating class of NMNW. They rock. There is no other word for it. They are confident, funny, intelligent, hard-working, beautiful, energetic, passionate about women’s rights. And if you cross them, they can kill you.

Sheila and Liz, mid-battle

Despite the fact that these women are now equipped to violently destroy an attacker — or multiple attackers — in a variety of situations, what I found to be most interesting about this course is that Lee tries to focus on the verbal elements of self-defence. She said courses in North America are very focused on physical fighting, because that’s what the students seem to want — but she told me that 85 percent of assaults can be stopped with voice alone. Verbal defence skills are a major part of the NMNW curriculum.

What exactly is verbal defence? Reasoning and negotiating, yes. But also screaming, yelling, raging, shouting, and basically scaring off a would-be rapist by acting like one crazy bitch.

Paps and Liz practice fighting from the ground

Witnessing one of their training sessions was inspiring. The class welcomed me into their tight-knit group, and they were eager to talk. I was surprised by how openly they shared with me their stories of rape, violence and abuse. The rape statistics in Nairobi vary, from the government’s official rape rate of 2 percent of the population, to some NGOs’ estimates of 40 percent. It’s impossible to know, but the NMNW graduates would definitely tell you that it falls closer to the higher end of the spectrum, at least in their communities.

One woman in her early 20s told me about being raped by her boyfriend. Another told me her cousin sexually abused her when she was 11, and it has taken her until her early 20s to be able to trust men. A third woman shared the story of a police officer who tried to rape her by luring her into his home with promises of a gift in remembrance of her father, who had just passed away.

There is no question that the women I met have experienced trauma and horror, but the most remarkable thing is how positively and passionately they have emerged from those challenges. There were no whining/excuses/wallowing in self-pity in that stark concrete training hall in Korogocho — only a fierce determination to prevent any more women from having to tell stories like theirs.

As one graduate put it, “We don’t want to take a woman to the hospital because she has been raped. We want to take an assailant to the hospital because he has been beaten by a woman when he was trying to rape her.”

graduation luncheon, downtown Nairobi

So far, so good. During the final week of class, two of the students were attacked not once, but twice, in a single evening. The first attack was two men, the second was 11 men. These men couldn’t have picked smaller women to attack — Paps and Liz probably each weigh 90 pounds soaking wet — but they stood their ground, used their voices, and got away without a scratch.

I don’t really know how to sum up the experience of spending time with these inspiring women. Maybe another inspiring woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, said it best: A woman is like a teabag, you never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.

(PS: Speaking of kickass women, I really enjoyed this Vanity Fair article.)

it’s the end of the world as we know it

I got really quite horrifyingly ill last week. I will spare you the details, but it involved undercooked chicken and the digestive tract equivalent of Fukushima Daichi — your personal experiences with salmonella poisoning can fill in the rest.

As I laid in bed on Wednesday contemplating the sweet release of death, the sky outside my window increasingly darkened. A huge clap of thunder shook the walls, and then it started hailing. Yeah. Like, ice falling from the sky. Pea-sized chunks of frozen water pummelled the earth, mixed with rain and general atmospheric chaos. Keep in mind Nairobi is just a few latitude south of the equator. It’s supposed to be summer here.

I stared in disbelief out the window. Then I thought about the plague infesting my body… and all I could think was, “Yup. It’s the apocalypse.”

Talk about pathetic fallacy. I managed to struggle out of bed and get my camera soaking wet, just to document the moment — for future proof that I hadn’t been delirious. In the end, I was spared a hospital visit by my travel medicine doctor in Montreal… more specifically, the little bottle of miracle antibiotics she prescribed in May. This was not the first time I’ve found myself deploying 1000 mg of cipro-fury on a stomach bug, and I never cease to be amazed at the effectiveness. I may name my first-born Ciprofloxacin.

Anyway, don’t feel too sorry for me. I’m better now. And a week from today I’ll be waking up here. Jealous? Distract yourself with this crazy story [via Goulet]. Or this awesome element of American society. (The whole rice and curry thing is getting old. I could really go for some grippachos or alligator jerky.)

gardens and grenades

It’s been (dare I bring it up) more than a week since the last attack in Nairobi, and the new reality is becoming routine. Military guards stand sentry outside hotels and malls, cradling semi-automatics. Entering a grocery store or nightclub requires a swipe of the metal detector, although the screening seems a little selective. If you’re a muzungu trying to get into the popular downtown bar Simmers, the staff just waves you through. (Guess they figure white people are the targets, not the perps.) I think it’s a lot like airport security — it’s there to make the patrons feel safe, rather than serving any real purpose against a serious attack. For example, Simmers is an open-air club, bordered on three sides by sidewalks… not exactly difficult for a pedestrian to lob in a grenade.

The initial panic seems to have subsided, but I don’t know if that’s a return to logical thinking or a false sense of security. I ask my taxi drivers what they think of al-Shabaab and they shrug them off as hooligans. Some Kenyan blogs are covering how to survive a grenade attack. Others are even brazenly going as far as making fun of the whole situation. (Both via Paige.) But I honestly don’t know what to think.

Despite the new reality of living in Nairobi, life goes on. I have a new story in the Nation today. Gathering the material for this piece was really enjoyable — it reminded me of home. I’ve only recently begun to get my fingernails dirty, but I grew up on a diet of vegetables grown in my own front yard, and it’s nice to see people trying to bring some of those same techniques to an area that so desperately needs an agricultural revolution.

note the lush green that Gai has created against the background of a parched savannah

It was also just great to get out of the city — Gai’s farm is on the edge of Nairobi National Park. Canadians have squirrels and deer in their backyards. Gai has giraffes and cheetahs. And also a generally gorgeous home.

My bedroom for the evening.

Also — I finally went to the coast. And I approve.

Dear Canadians, you are suckers.

Breathing space.

But it’s not all coast and cocktails. Next up for me? Some dangerous women are showing Nairobi’s rapists the meaning of the word no. Aw, hell yeah.