They Lie So Easily

CentralPark11

Fall in New York City makes me forget all my troubles. The juxtaposition of red, orange, and yellow leaves over blue-glass buildings, the breezy weather, the yellow taxis pressing the leaves into the pavement, the splendor of the botanical garden I visited a few weeks ago–all of it sometimes feels like it was made just for me to wander through.

Today I walked almost five miles through Central Park. I had my headphones off, which I almost never do. Usually I keep them on, even if I don’t want to listen to music, so that I don’t hear the things men say to me. But I wanted to hear the sounds of the park.

I’ve wanted to see the Mall in autumn for a while now–you know, that walkway lined with American Elms that features prominently in When Harry Met Sally.

CentralPark3

Well, I saw it. And as I was seeing it, a man stopped me.

“Excuse me miss–”

“No thank you, I’m not interested.”

“Whatever, bitch.”

He started to walk away towards a couple sitting on a bench, but I whipped around like a woman on fire.

What did you just say to me?”

It’s happened plenty of times, but it still surprises me because it feels so far from where I’ve been. My voice came out clear and strong. I faced him, looked right at him, as the couple on the bench watched on.

“I asked if you’d donate to–”

“No, after that.”

“I said have a nice day.”

Sure you did.”

I walked away.

CentralPark4

What else can you do?

I thought about how easily he had told that absolutely blatant lie. He did not appear nervous. He did not hesitate. His voice was confident, casual. It’s nothing, just a little misunderstanding.

They all lie so easily.

CentralPark15

“I said have a nice day.”

“I never touched her, I don’t know what she’s talking about.”

“Of course I didn’t call you the n-word, I’d never do something like that, I’m not a racist, stop pulling the race card.”

“I didn’t sexually assault her; she got upset after I rejected her advances and falsely accused me.”

Despite a strong connection between us it became clear to me that our on-and-off dating was unlikely to grow into a larger relationship and I ended things in the beginning of this year. She was upset by this and sent me messages indicating her disappointment that I would not commit to more, and her anger that I was seeing others. After this, in the early spring there began a campaign of harassment, vengeance and demonization against me that would lead to months of anxiety.”

CentralPark6

It is not enough for them to simply say that we were wrong or misunderstood. They have to try to paint us as crazed, over-emotional, hysterical bitches, too.

Despite widespread belief that detecting lies is easy, research shows that people do barely better than chance at it. This man I encountered in the Mall was showing none of the signs associated with spewing complete unadulterated grade-A bullshit. Yet that’s exactly what he was doing.

It’s not just lying, either. It’s gaslighting, too. I’ve been through this many times. They try to get me to believe that what I absolutely just saw or heard did not really happen. Nothing to see here. Move along.

CentralPark9

It is difficult, nearly impossible, for a woman (or another person affected by systemic oppression like this) to relearn the skill of trusting your own perception. There are many things that have happened to me that I’m no longer quite certain happened simply because somebody told me they didn’t. Like an altered Soviet photograph with a space where some persona non grata used to be, these memories feel shaky and uncertain to me.

Not this time. This man called me a bitch. He called me a bitch because I politely said no. Never forget that. I will never forget that, no matter what anyone says.

I am sure that there are people who would find it easier to believe that I, a person without hearing impairment, who was standing at most two feet away from this man in a relatively quiet place, either managed to mishear “Have a nice day” as “Whatever, bitch,” or that I deliberately accused an innocent man of saying such a thing (Why? To what possible end?) than that a man might use a slur against a woman who refuses to give him her time or attention.

It’s not just that these things happen so commonly. It’s that they happen so commonly and yet people continue to believe them to be the fantastical inventions of some jealous/delusional/over-emotional/vengeful/uptight/slutty/prudish/ugly/crazy bitch. Instead, they propose explanations that are more fantastical by orders of magnitude, such as the idea that I could have somehow heard “Whatever, bitch” instead of “Have a nice day.” Or that someone could believe themselves to have been sexually assaulted when nothing of the sort happened. Or that they would willfully lie about it and have their names dragged through the mud in front of the silent, shrugging world.

CentralPark5

And I thought, too, about the couple on the bench, looking at the man and at me. Maybe they thought I was a crazy bitch. Maybe they knew exactly what was going on. Maybe they were confused and didn’t know what to think.

Regardless, I cannot concern myself too much with the opinion of the couple on the bench, because I will never see the couple on the bench again. I will, on the other hand, have to live as a woman in this world for the rest of my life. Talking back will not end sexism and it is not an option available to everyone. But it replenishes me. It is a power that I have. I know it is a power because if it wasn’t, men wouldn’t be so afraid of it.

CentralPark10

The photos in this post are all ones I took during that walk today. I included them here for a reason, and it wasn’t to show off my photography. It was to give those of you who haven’t experienced it a sense of that juxtaposition, of having almost every joyful, peaceful, meaningful moment in your life punctuated somehow by oppression.

I am not a happy person, not even when I’m not depressed, but I am a person who constantly marvels at the world–the physical world, the social world. Yet sexism follows me everywhere, taints almost all of my experiences and memories. I can’t get away from it, not even in the twisted paths and falling leaves of Central Park. I cannot escape it no matter where I go.

CentralPark12

Not three minutes after my encounter with the man who called me a bitch, another man approached me. I said the same sort of thing as I said last time, only my voice had gone cold and hard as the ancient boulders in the park. This man did not call me a bitch. He just said, “Have a nice day,” in the cruelest tone I’ve ever heard those words said. I thought, Too late.

Central Park

After that I put my headphones on, concluding that particular experiment. As the world around me went quiet, I felt those headphones like a shield around my mind. The singing birds, the fountains, the intriguing conversations all became dull and fuzzy, like the way your mind feels when you’re sick.

But I didn’t turn the music on. Instead I imagined my own music. Sometimes I thought of the Russian songs my parents and their friends and I sing around campfires. Other times I made up my own songs. It comforted me.

CentralPark13

I didn’t feel sad, exactly. I felt suddenly disconnected, like I was experiencing the world from inside a bubble. I felt very alone. I felt weary. I also felt grateful for the privileges I do have, without which this situation could so easily have been much worse.

But I thought about it for the rest of the walk, because it had lodged itself, as these things often do, in my mind like a splinter that itches and burns.

Central Park is a wonder this time of year. If you live nearby, I encourage you to visit it, especially if you, unlike me, have the freedom to be able to take your headphones off, let it fill your ears up with its beautiful noise.

CentralPark14

Spring in Manhattan

And now for something completely different: these are some of my favorite photos that I’ve taken around the city in the last few weeks. Acquiring a DSLR has made my life much happier.

Here’s a fascinating article about the building from which those street art photos are from.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

[in brief] On Instagram and Elitism

My Instagram of snow falling on my campus today. Haters gonna hate.

My Instagram of snow falling on my campus today. Haters gonna hate.

I think what bothers me most about the snarking and condescension people often express about Instagram and the people who use it is this idea that something is only worth doing if you do it the Real Way or the Right Way or whatever.

I’ve never actually encountered anyone using Instagram and pretending that what they’re doing is High Art that should be sold in galleries and submitted to contests. I’m sure these people exist, but they can only be a tiny minority. People use Instagram to connect with their friends and create pretty pictures. Most of us realize that making a pretty picture doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve made “art,” although it can. What is art, anyway? That definition is up to the individual who creates or consumes it. I’ve created things that I consider art, and I’ve created things that I do not consider art—often using the same medium, in fact.

There’s a lot of elitism and self-importance among people who create what they see as “art” towards people who create amateur art-like things for fun. When I first started with photography when I was 16, there were probably people who thought that the silly photos of little kids and candles and whatever that I took with my point-and-shoot camera were ridiculous and stupid. Maybe they were right, but I was still practicing, and a few years later I won a few contests with my photos.

By the way, I was still using a point-and-shoot when I took those photos, because guess what—-not everyone can afford a DSLR. Would I love to have one? Yes. Would I be a better photographer if I had one? Probably, because there are definitely limits to how creative and technically “good” you can make your photos with just a point-and-shoot. But that doesn’t mean that what I was doing without one was crappy just by virtue of being taken with a point-and-shoot.

So it is for Instagram and its brethren. The teens and young adults messing around with it may be taking their first steps to becoming “Photographers,” or they might just be having fun with their friends and making pretty pictures. Whichever one it is, it’s not deserving of the sanctimonious eye-rolling it often gets. Neither of these things is a threat to Real Art. Neither of these things is a threat to photographers who use Real Cameras and take Real Photos.

P.S. A friend pointed something out to me that I hadn’t even thought about: much of the backlash against Instagram is probably caused by the fact that it’s mostly used by women. Just like with Pinterest.

P.P.S. The use of Instagram in photos that are used in news stories is a separate issue, though.

I Won’t Write About the Conflict; Or, What I Think Of When I Think Of Israel

My hometown, Haifa

I won’t write about the conflict.

Yes, I know I’m from there. I know I must have Such Interesting Perspectives on that whole…situation.

I know I have friends in the IDF. I know I once strongly considered moving back, and thus getting drafted myself. I know I’ve seen rubble and remains of Qassam rockets and tanks and bomb shelters and graves. What do I think of all this?

Not much, anymore. I’ve gone numb.

I used to write about it, publicly. I had a newspaper column and everything. You can probably guess which perspective I took. My family was so proud, sending the articles to their friends, saying, See, here’s a young person who gets it.

And then I stopped, cold turkey.

I’m not ignorant. I read the news. But the news is so damn different depending on who reports it, and each side can easily counter the other with endless barrels of (factual? fake?) evidence.

I am a skeptic. When I don’t know the facts, I keep my mind unmade. Israeli politics, like Israeli cities and streets and social codes, are so much messier than their American counterparts. So on this issue, like so few others, I remain not apathetic, but agnostic.

Most of my friends don’t know that I prefer not to talk about it. Those who aren’t close enough to be friends will even ask me upon first learning about my nationality: “So, you’re from Israel, huh? What’s your take on what’s going on over there?” I usually mumble something about not really following that whole thing anymore.

Before I understood how to assert my conversational boundaries, I once let a friend lead me into a discussion about it. He didn’t know that it’s a sensitive issue, and that conversation ended with a moment that wasn’t one of my best: me snapping at him that maybe he’d feel differently if he didn’t have an aging grandmother over there, a widow, who has had to evacuate her city when the wars start.

But another time, a new friend did one of the kindest things possible: after I’d asked him a personal question, he reassured me that he’s open to discussing just about anything, except Middle Eastern politics. For a long time, I wondered what personal connection this decidedly not Middle Eastern person could possibly have to the conflict. Only later did I find out that he has no issues with discussing it at all; he’d said that only to free me from any obligation I might feel to discuss it with him. And, indeed, I’d been freed.

I disagree with those fellow Jews who think I have an obligation to defend Israel (some of whom say that my talent is being wasted on subjects like mental illness and assaults on women’s rights). I likewise disagree with those fellow progressives who think I have an obligation to denounce Israel. It is my home. I learned to breathe, walk, eat, talk, think, and exist here. My first memories are here. This hot breeze was the first to ever rustle through my hair. These salty waves were the first to ever knock me over and make me gasp for air. These narrow, winding streets are the ones on which I saw, for the first time, a world beyond myself and my family.

I can no more divest this place of its emotional significance and denounce it than I could my own mother and father.

To those who have never been to Israel–and that’s most Americans, even those who have plenty of opinions on the conflict–it must be hard to imagine thinking and writing about Israel without also thinking and writing about the conflict.

I can see why. When you think of Israel, you think of the nightly news. You think of fiery politicians and clashing religions. You think of security walls, blockades, and death counts.

I think of those things, too. I have to.

But I also think of the way the passengers burst into applause whenever an airplane lands in Israel.

I think of stepping into the Mediterranean for the first time in years. The water is clear and the sea is turquoise, and tiny fish swarm around my feet. The current pulls me in, and when the waves slam, it feels amazing.

Carmel Beach, Haifa

Carmel Beach, Haifa

I think of weathered blue-and-white flags hanging from windows, fences, car antennas.

I think of the obvious hummus, pita, and falafel, but also of schnitzel, shashlik, tabbouleh, schwarma, tahini, and beesli.

I think of eating figs and mangoes right off the tree.

I think of hearing a language I usually only hear at Friday night services–on the street, in the bus, at the supermarket. I think of how the little I know of that language tumbles out so naturally, with the pronunciation and intonation almost right.

I think of the Russian woman we talked to at the bus stop, who could remember and list all of the day’s product prices from the market.

Flowers in a park in Neve Sha'anan, Haifa

Flowers in a park in Neve Sha’anan, Haifa

I think of the strangers wishing me shana tova (happy new year).

I think of clinging to the pole as the bus careens down the mountain, around corners, and of laughing as the driver slams on the breaks, opens the door, and curses out another driver, as they do in Israel.

I think of the shuk (market) on Friday afternoon, before Shabbat.

I think of factory cooling towers, roundabouts, solar panels, and other staples of Israeli infrastructure.

I think of the white buildings designed like cascading steps, their balconies overflowing with flowers.

I think of how things are messy. The streets aren’t laid out in a grid like in American cities; they twist themselves into knots. People are impatient. Taxi drivers charge whatever they want. Rules and signs are ignored.

Produce at the market

Produce at a market stall

I think of palm, pine, olive, and eucalyptus trees, and of the smell of the pines in the park where we used to go before the forest burned down.

I think of laundry drying on clotheslines hung beneath windows.

I think of the huge families camping on the beach with tents, mattresses, grills, stereos, portable generators, pets, and, in one case, an actual refrigerator.

I think of Middle Eastern music and Russian talk shows blaring out of open windows.

I think of heat, dirt, sand, and blinding sunlight.

I think of how, somewhere in the thickets behind my grandmother’s apartment building, there is a single grave. It belongs to a 16-year-old boy who died defending Haifa decades ago. And despite its entirely unobvious location, the grave marker is always piled high with rocks.

View from Yad Lebanim Road

I think of vendors selling huge bouquets of flowers by the side of the road for the new year, which would begin that night.

I think of how slowly life moves here in some ways. Buses run late, eating at restaurants can take hours. Young adults take years off between the army and college. Our nation has been around in some way for thousands of years, so I suppose hurrying seems a bit silly.

I think of the cemetery by the sea, where my grandfather is buried, and where the silence and stillness is comforting.

I think of the history embedded in every stone, and of how the steps of Haifa’s endless staircases are worn smooth.

Stairs between streets

I think of how it must have felt to be despised, discriminated against, and even murdered for your peculiarities, and then coming to a country where everyone shares them with you.

I think of floating in the sea at night with friends I’ve known since before my memory begins. The water, completely still now, reflects the orange lights on the shore.

And here, in a place most know only for its violence, I have found a peace that eludes me in the safe and orderly country where I live.

So I won’t write about the conflict.

I will only write about my home.

Sunrise over Haifa

Sunrise over Haifa

I ♥ NY

Consider this a love letter to my favorite city.

Looking down 5th Avenue towards southern tip of Manhattan, from the top of the Empire State Building

New York City was the first bit of America that I ever saw, fourteen years ago when my family immigrated from Israel. I can only imagine how my parents felt. They had escaped from social and religious oppression when they’d left Russia, and now, two casualties of Israel’s faltering economy, they looked to America for help. New York welcomed them with open arms.

And now, it welcomes me. Growing up wedged between four cultures, I never learned to speak the language of just one. I’m always some combination of Russian, Jewish, American, and Israeli. I’ve never felt at home anywhere. Except New York.

I don’t have to identify myself here, perhaps because there are plenty of people here just like me, who grew up in one culture, speaking the language of another, observing the religion of a third, and finally settling into a fourth. Here I don’t have to get into a car and drive far away to find the food I grew up with or a place to practice my religion. I don’t feel awkward when I pick up the phone to talk to my parents and a dozen sets of eyes immediately turn to stare at me. (You’d have to try pretty damn hard to get people to look at you in New York, and speaking Russian–there are 300,000 Russians there–definitely won’t do it.)

I’ve lived in six cities on three continents, and New York is the only one in which I’ve felt comfortable and accepted. I feel like it speaks my language.

Abandoned lot near Rockaway Beach, in Queens

It seems that achieving the American Dream means living in a way that you can forget your fellow dreamers even exist. My parents’ house in Ohio is located in one of the best neighborhoods in town. Backyards sprawl around their houses; often they’re larger than the house itself. They are usually surrounded by a fence,

You don’t really see many people out and about. You don’t have to; you have your own backyard to hide in. My mom and I are instantly recognized by many residents of our neighborhood because we take lots of walks. On the rare occasion that I actually talk to someone, they often point this out.

Interaction with people is minimized in many parts of the U.S., and that’s considered the ideal. There’s no super to pay the rent to, no neighbors to stomp on the ceiling above you, no musicians on the street corners or on the subway cars (since there aren’t any subways), no bus stops full of people, no beggars asking you for change. People move to the suburbs and count their blessings that they no longer have to deal with all these pesky people.

I don’t like it that way. I like it the New York way.

There’s nothing worse for me than silence and aloneness. In New York, you are never alone. Look down the street at night and you see hundreds of glowing windows peering back at you. People sit on porches, stoops, benches, balconies, and railings. They lean on buildings, cars, and fences. They eat, smoke, talk, read, play chess, embrace, make music, or do nothing.

When you’re feeling lonely, which is most of the time for me, there’s nothing more powerful than this reminder that you’re never really alone. Even if it feels that way.

The Manhattan Municipal Building

So yeah, I’ve done all the tourist stuff. I’ve been to the Met, the MoMA, the Lincoln Center, and the Museum of Natural History. I’ve walked all the way through Central Park and been to the Bronx Zoo. I’ve been to the top of the Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, and the Twin Towers, when they were still standing. After they weren’t, I went to Ground Zero. I’ve been to Wall Street and seen every inch of Broadway from Battery Park to Columbus Circle. I’ve been in Times Square, Washington Square, Madison Square, Union Square, and probably a lot of other important squares. I’ve been to both the Strand and Macy’s, Columbia and NYU, Chinatown and Greenwich Village, Brighton Beach and the Upper East Side. And I know I’m still not even close to being done.

But my favorite thing to do in New York is just to walk. You can lose yourself in the streets of Manhattan without ever really being lost, because getting lost in Manhattan would require not knowing how to count. It’s easy–the avenues go up and down the length of the island, and the number of the avenue increases as you go from east to west. The streets go perpendicular to the avenues, counting upwards as you go north. Below Houston Street things get a bit tricky, but you still can’t really get lost.

The reason I can’t do this anywhere but New York is because no other city has such a vast amount of walkable territory. In Chicago, you can find the nicest neighborhood you’ve ever seen, but walk a mere ten blocks in any direction and you’ll start to see housing projects.

Anything that chocolate, music, and sex can’t heal, walking can. New Yorkers know this, which might be why they’ve built a city that makes walking so easy.

L'orange Bleue, a French restaurant in SoHo

My parents have a friend who works two blocks away from my aunt’s apartment, where I stayed for the past five weeks. When I told her that I’m planning to become a psychologist, she said, “Come to New York! There’s no better place to be a psychologist.” She said that elsewhere, people still believe that psychotherapy is something for crazy people to do. In New York, however, people understand that it can be a valuable tool for attaining self-knowledge and becoming happier. My impromptu adviser proudly pointed out that she herself has an excellent therapist.

Of course, psychology isn’t the only subject on which New Yorkers, generally speaking, have progressive views. In New York, it’s legal for a woman to go topless in public. Chain restaurants were required to provide calorie counts for all of their menu items even before Obama’s healthcare bill made that mandatory nationwide, and trans fats are illegal in restaurants. Homeless people don’t sleep on the streets anymore now that the city has a network of homeless shelters. Smoking is illegal not only in restaurants and bars, but also in parks, public squares (i.e. Times Square),  sports stadiums, and beaches. Cars are almost entirely unnecessary thanks to the constantly-improving public transit system. Gay marriage is legal.

When I hear about all the things that New York has and Chicago (let alone Dayton, Ohio) do not, I feel like this is a city that takes care of its people. It’s one more reason to feel welcome there.

Underneath a bridge in Central Park

Leaving New York sucked. On my last evening there, after I came down from the Empire State Building, I kept hanging around in Herald Square because I didn’t want to get on the subway and go home. That would put a note of finality into it.

On the plane the next day, I kept thinking about all the people I’d interacted with in New York. Not just my friends and family, but the nameless people–the Russian lady who asked me for help in CVS on my first night there, the stewardess I talked to while I was in line to buy snacks at the airport, the Spanish-speaking woman who offered to take my picture on top of the Empire State Building, the Bukharian Jew working for the Russian car service I used to get to the airport (we talked about family and the places we’ve lived), the giggly 40-year-old woman who approached me in Barnes & Noble in Union Square to ask me for help loading music onto her new laptop, the 16-year-old high school student from Florida who started talking to me about books in the Strand, the U of Iowa student I talked to about football in Washington Square, the street cart owner who chatted me up while making my chicken and rice on my first day out in the city, the gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair wearing a really nice suit who talked to me as we looked at male sex toys in the Museum of Sex.

I was so worried when I first set off for New York that I would be terribly lonely there. Everyone warned me that people are cold, that they ignore you, so I wasn’t at all prepared for the incredible variety of interesting and complex people I would meet there. And, despite having been in New York before, I had no idea of how the loneliness melts away when you find yourself actually walking through those streets.

Now I do, and now, more than anything, I just want to be back in those streets again.

Midtown and the Empire State Building, from the top of the Rockefeller Center