tits up

On our second night in Brussels, Jessica and I went to a nearby square to find someplace to have dinner. Anyone who travels in foreign countries is probably familiar with this method of dinner-finding:

“What about this place?”
“I dunno, let’s look at the menu.”
[Looking at menu]
“Whoa, that’s expensive! Let’s keep walking.”


“How about here?”
[Looking at menu]
“Eh, we had pizza last night. Let’s keep walking.”


[Looking at menu]
“I can’t tell what this is.”
“Me, either.”


“What about this place?”
[Looking at menu]
“I think I can find something to eat here. You?”
“Yeah, this looks good.”

We sat down at a table outside and looked at the menu. The waiter came over and spoke English to us, so we asked him to translate some of the less-obvious words on the menu, and he helped us pick out some drinks and salads and pasta.

As we waited for our food, I noticed an elderly man sitting by himself at a table just behind Jessica, with what looked like a metal crutch propped up next to him. On his table there was a beer and a bunch of colored pencils; it looked like he was drawing something.

Just after our food arrived, the man stood up and hobbled over to where Jessica and I were sitting. “Excuse me,” he said in heavily-accented English, handing me a beer coaster, “I draw this for you.”

I looked at the beer coaster. It was just a regular coaster on the printed side, but on the blank side he had drawn this:

a gift from an elderly man

In case it isn’t glaringly obvious, this is a drawing of me. Topless.

Of course I was not topless at the time; I guess the drawing was just his representation of what I might look like topless. While I was quietly freaking out, the elderly man was telling Jessica that to get the breasts so perfectly round, he had traced around an old Belgian penny. Not a Euro penny, a Belgian penny, I guess to add a little Belgian nationalism to his topless works.

I say I was quietly freaking out, but really I wasn’t sure what to think. How was I supposed to feel about this? Was the topless coaster drawing offensive? Was it creepy? Or was it just a prop for a funny travel tale? The waiter came out, saw the drawing on the table, and chuckled. “He does that every day,” he said.

The fact that the elderly man was there at the restaurant every day, drawing all sorts of topless tourists, made me feel a bit better. If he was creepy, at least he wasn’t so creepy that he had alienated restaurant employees. As a former waitress, I’ve known restaurant regulars like this–they walk a fine line between creepy and normal, but if you work at a place long enough, they start to seem a little endearing.

Jessica and I were halfway through our meal when the elderly man came over to our table again. “Excuse me. What is your name?” he said to Jessica.

“Jessica,” she said.

“Yessica!” he said. “You write it here.” He handed her a beer coaster and a marker and pointed to the printed side of the coaster. She wrote her name and gave it back to him. A few minutes later he came back over and handed her the coaster. On the blank side he had drawn a train, with Jessica’s name incorporated into the front grill of the locomotive.

“Thanks!” she said.

He asked us where we were from, and we told him Texas. “Texas!” he exclamed, as though pleasantly surprised. A few minutes later he asked me to write my name down, and I received a drawing of “a steam ship on the Mississippi!” with my name on it.

“Thanks,” I said.

The rest of the meal was uneventful except for the part where I arm-wrestled the waiter and he tried to give me a neck massage, but that’s another story. As we walked away from the restaurant, I thought about the topless drawing of me. What if the elderly man liked men instead of women? Would he draw pictures of shirtless or pantsless* men and hand them out to male tourists? I imagined how things might go if he handed out pictures of pantsless men:

“Excuse me, I draw this for you.”

If that’s really what would happen, then the beer-coaster drawing represents yet another thing that happens to women more often than men. Women are generally seen as more passive than men, and therefore less likely to react violently or negatively to things like this. Maybe the elderly man felt safe giving me the drawing because I’m a woman, so he probably wouldn’t get punched or even yelled at.

And he was right, apparently. I didn’t punch him or yell at him at all; in fact I thanked him. My general rule when I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language, don’t know the laws, and don’t know anyone besides my traveling companion is that it’s important to stay as safe as possible; negative incidents I might not walk away from at home are usually best avoided when abroad. So maybe that’s part of it. But the truth is that I am pretty passive. If a man in an Austin restaurant handed me a naked drawing of myself, I’d only make a fuss if he followed up with something inappropriate, and even then I’d probably just ask for the check and tell the waiter, “I’ve got to go, this customer is harassing me.”

The elderly man in the restaurant was obviously not coming on to me, and there was no inappropriate followup to be found. After he gave us our drawings, he didn’t talk to us again for the rest of our meal. If the same incident had happened in Austin, I’d have done the same exact thing that I did in Brussels.

There are a few other things at play here:

1. I felt less threatened because he was elderly, and walked with a cane. If he’d been large and/or muscular and imposing, I might have reacted differently, or at the very least felt differently.

2. My reaction to the drawing was a pretty American one. It’s an unfortunate American convention that, no matter what the context, the nude female form is automatically seen as a sexual thing to be censored.** Our movies are filled with more blood and violence and killing than with nudity, and when the nudity appears, it’s a big fat deal. Watching any amount of European television will tell you that they don’t look at nudity the same way we do. Perhaps the elderly Belgian man didn’t see his drawing as overtly sexual, at least not in the way I did.

I still struggle with my reaction to the drawing, and what it means as far as how I lead my daily life. I guess I don’t wish I’d been less passive at that restaurant in Brussels; the elderly man was harmless enough, as are your average men. But what about when things aren’t so harmless? I wish I didn’t feel the need to look behind me every time I walked down a deserted street. I wish I didn’t have to take my keys out and have them ready while walking to my car or apartment at night. I wish I didn’t feel like I can’t do certain things for safety reasons because I’m female. I wish about a lot of things that happen to women.

A friend once told me that whenever he’s walking down a nearly-deserted Manhattan street at night and there’s a lone woman walking in front of him, he’ll sometimes cross to the other side of the street to avoid freaking her out. And I think that’s what I really struggle with. Is it up to other people to try not to freak me out, or is it up to me to avoid allowing myself to freak out?***

As for the drawing, of course I took it with me, to use as a prop for a funny travel tale. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good story.

*Side question: if he drew pictures of pantsless males, what would he trace for the penis?

**However gradually, I do think America is improving on this front, but we’re still much different from the rest of the western world in how we view our nudity.

***I think it’s both, really.

Dear Frank Warren,

We’ve never met before, but I was in the audience at your keynote at SXSW in March. SXSW 2008 was the eighth SXSW I’ve attended, and I’ve been to many panels and many keynotes, but yours has been the only one during which I cried.

SXSW is often a rather stressful event for me, so this year at SXSW I gave myself a set of rules to keep myself from getting depressed, from getting too stressed out, from–well, from crying. But I didn’t cry during your keynote for any of my usual reasons, and I didn’t cry any other times during the conference, so I’m going to give myself a pass and call this year’s SXSW a success.

Your keynote made me cry for the same reason I had to stop visiting your website. You may not be too happy to hear about that, but it’s not your fault. PostSecret is a wonderful project, but I had to stop reading the website because it made me too sad. My small corner of the world–my job, my city, my hobbies, my friends, my family–is about all I can handle sometimes, and reading PostSecret reminded me that the world is much larger than I’ll ever be able to understand. Every single person has their own small corner of the world like mine, a corner they probably feel like they can’t handle any more than I can, and all those corners with their beautiful and terrible and painful secrets are sometimes too much for me to bear. I’ll never know any of these people, and the enormity of that frightens me a little.

The secrets also worry me because they make me wonder about the people I do know. Do my friends or family members have terrible secrets they’ll never tell me? How well can you ever really know another person?

Here’s the thing, though: that concept goes both ways. I’m as complicated as any other human being, aren’t I? How well do my friends and family know me? And that’s the other reason I cried during your keynote. You see, Frank Warren, I have a secret.

When I told my therapist about my secret, I expected him to look surprised. I thought he would put down his Diet Dr. Pepper, lean forward in his chair and say, “Really? Tell me more.” But he didn’t. Instead he just said, “Oh. Yeah.” I get the feeling that I share this secret with others.

I guess my secret can best be described as a debilitating, all-encompassing fear of an apocalypse. But it’s not the kind of apocalypse you see in movies where Bill Pullman is the president and Jeff Goldblum is the scientist and the aliens/dinosaurs/meteors are coming to kill us all. It’s the kind where we’re going to run out of oil, we’re going to run out of food, we’re going to run out of money, we’re going to run out of places to keep all the people and garbage and stuff we’ve created.

When gripped with apocalypse fear, I run through the same scenario over and over again in my head. It’s pretty ridiculous; are you ready to hear it? Okay. In the apocalyptic scenario, I’m sixty years old, and somehow I’m still living in the same apartment I do now. (I don’t really like this apartment, and I know I won’t be living in it when I’m sixty. Hell, it probably won’t even be here when I’m sixty. But that’s the scenario, so I go with it.) I’m sixty, and I live in this apartment, and BAM! The world runs out of gasoline, electricity, and food, all in the span of hours. There’s anarchy outside, and I’m alone in my apartment. Most of my friends don’t live nearby, so I have no way to get to them if I don’t want to walk really, really far. But then I think, hey! I have some gas left in my car, probably enough to get me to a friend’s house, and then we can all go find food together. So I walk out to the parking lot where my 1996 Acura is still there and functional, and BAM! Someone kills me for a tank of gas.

I know that what I’ve done here is taken all my worst fears and combined them into a single ten-minute play. I’m afraid I’ll never live in a place I actually like, I’m afraid I’ll be chained to my car forever, I’m afraid I’ll always be a fifteen-minute drive away from my friends, I’m afraid we’re going to run out of everything all at once and there’ll be anarchy, and I’m afraid my death will be painful, lonely, and meaningless.

Sometimes the play has a different ending. Sometimes my apartment neighbors and I band together in the crisis. We used to be strangers, but now we’re friends by necessity, and we protect each other and look for food together and take turns going down to the creek to get water. We fend off hostile groups from other apartments with pointy sticks and old kitchen knives, and at night one of us always keeps watch while the others sleep. It’s okay for awhile, but then I die of heat stroke and sunburn.

Or sometimes I manage to walk all the way to a friend’s house, and my friends and I band together to help each other stay safe and get food and water and sleep. But then someone from a rival group kills our leader, and we’re all so despondent and directionless that we disband, and then someone kills me for a tank of gas while I’m dying of heat stroke and sunburn.

But usually I’m killed for the gas right away. I’ve begun to use the phrase, “when someone kills me for a tank of gas” as shorthand for the whole thing. “My inability to be productive won’t really matter when someone kills me for a tank of gas.” “It’s okay if I watch TV all day because it won’t make a difference when someone kills me for a tank of gas.” “This problem will seem insignificant by the time someone kills me for a tank of gas.”

The shorthand is necessary, though, because not a day goes by when I don’t think about my apocalypse fear. I can’t go to the grocery store without imagining what it might look like with empty shelves. I can’t check my mailbox without imagining all my junk mail in a landfill. I can’t visit Houston without imagining it flooded with seawater from melted ice. I can’t look at paper plates and plastic forks without thinking about our “consumption-based culture in which disposability is an added value.” I can’t look at my coworkers and acquaintances without thinking, “Do they know? Can they see it coming?” My corner of the world may look normal on the outside, but inside my head it’s covered with a sticky film of impending disaster.

My apocalypse fear came to a head last summer and fall. I was having at least one anxiety attack per day, usually while driving home from work, usually related to the fact that I work in a far-flung suburb of a city without a lot of reliable public transportation. I would find myself paralyzed with guilt at all the gas I was wasting getting to and from work, and equally paralyzed at the thought of having to ride both the bus and my bicycle to the office every day. Then I would feel guilty about not wanting to ride the bus, and then guilty about wasting the gas, and on and on until sometimes I wasn’t really watching the road anymore. “That’s okay,” I would think to myself. “This won’t matter when someone kills me for a tank of gas.”

(When I find myself thinking this way, I’m reminded of a comment someone left on a post I wrote on my website awhile back. I’d had a bad day, and I wrote that it seemed to me like nothing I did was ever going to matter in the grand scope of human existence, so what the hell was the point. Someone named John wrote, “The sun’s going to go out in a million years, and here I am going to work like a sucker.” It was exactly how I felt that day, and it was exactly how I felt last fall.)

I didn’t tell anyone about my fear for a really long time. Running out of food and gasoline and electricity and potable water is a scary topic, and I didn’t want to depress my friends. I was afraid that they’d hear about what I was going through and say, “Alison, I don’t really want to talk about that right now.” Worse, I was afraid they would tell me that I was wrong, that all that stuff is never going to happen, that it’s pointless to worry about it. As I’m pretty sure it’s all going to happen at some point, hearing that would only have made me feel even more alone. And I already felt really alone. The collapse of Western civilization isn’t something I’d ever heard anyone talk about in casual conversation, so naturally I assumed that everyone else a) didn’t know, or b) knew but was handling it much better than I was.

Things all came to a head in December. I’d been obsessing over the apocalypse since June or July, I hadn’t told anyone, and it was driving me so insane that I was probably thisclose to buying a gun and putting all my savings under my mattress. A few weeks before Christmas, I had a friend over. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but I guess I couldn’t hold my worry and fear in anymore, and all of a sudden I was telling him that we were running out of food and water and electricity and someone was going to kill me for a tank of gas. To my great surprise, he didn’t tell me he didn’t want to talk about it, and he didn’t tell me my fears were unfounded. Instead he listened, and asked questions, and was generally sympathetic to what I was going through. I guess I don’t give my friends enough credit.

After I finally told someone about it, I started to feel a bit better. At SXSW I told another friend, who said that he thinks about it, too. Then I told another friend, who said that it’s something she and her mom have talked about. And that, Frank Warren, is why I think PostSecret is important, even if I can’t read it myself. To take your secret out of your own head and put it somewhere else is often the thing that separates you from insanity. I still see the world through empty shelves and plastic bags and non-renewable resources and the wasting, wasting, wasting of everything, but talking about it has made living in that world a little bit easier.

Thank you.

Alison Headley

P.S. Other good has come out of this, too. I’m becoming much more aware of what I buy and what I throw away, I’ve mostly stopped eating meat, and I’m working on chipping away at my gas usage. It’s a slow process, but if I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that I won’t do anyone any good if I sit back and let it drive me insane.

P.P.S. I know that we’re not going to run out of food and water and oil all at the same time. I also know that thirty years from now is a debatable, perhaps even arbitrary, figure. My fears are just that, fears, and I don’t put them through an accuracy test before I let them take over.

P.P.P.S. I would never really buy a gun. You know that, right?

P.P.P.P.S. Thank you Ryan and Ariel.

Dear Shaun,

Today at lunch I spent a little time on Ask Metafilter–not looking for anything in particular, mind you, just a general sort of looking. I spend less time online lately, but the Metafiltering is a thing I still do every now and then, usually when I’m trying to avoid doing something else. So there I was, clicking and avoiding, and then I read this comment you wrote, and I started to cry. I didn’t cry about the vegetarian food ideas (Smart Dogs are good, but they’re not that good) or about how expensive Whole Foods is (fucking expensive, but not tear-inducingly so) or about how much I might miss bacon if I stopped eating it (although I’d miss it a lot). No, I cried at this part:

You might get fed up and snap and have a hamburger. You might find that you’re perfectly happy being a vegetarian all the time except Sunday mornings, when you just want to goddamned pieces of bacon with your scrambled eggs. You might not think about the chicken stock in the soup until after you’ve eaten it. That’s ok. Don’t feel like you’ve failed as a vegetarian. Even though, yes, you ate some meat, you are eating less meat. Your new vegetarianism (whatever your reason for it) is not some fragile vase that is going to shatter the second you have a bite of meat. It is as strong as you decide it is, and the boundaries are where you set them. Remember that what’s important here is net benefit. A single hot dog does not erase all the benefits from not eating meat for the previous weeks, months, or years. If you were only 100% vegetarian for a single day that would be better than never.

You wrote it about vegetarianism, but I read it like this:

Your $x (whatever your reason for it) is not some fragile vase that is going to shatter the second you $y. It is as strong as you decide it is, and the boundaries are where you set them.

At which point it became about the long, long list of things I’ve stopped doing lately, things I’ve let languish simply because I’m afraid I can’t do them perfectly. I can’t write a book perfectly, I can’t sew a skirt perfectly, I can’t redesign this website perfectly (let alone post on it), I can’t process my photos perfectly, I can’t do anything perfectly. This particular thought pattern has crippled me to the point where I’ve become paralyzed with anxiety, and I’ve stopped doing anything at all.

I’m sure that this is obvious to other people, but it is not obvious to me: it’s okay if I’m not perfect. Really, it is. My writing is not some fragile vase that is going to shatter the second I split an infinitive; if I only sewed for a single day that would be better than never; and so on and so forth. And that’s why I cried when I read your comment. I’ve always known that “It’s okay if I’m not perfect” is a factual statement, but reading what you wrote made me think that I just might start believing it.

Thank you.