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A Well-Built Lady

January 15, 2013

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Today, some ladies and I got to talking via email about women we feel helped make us who we are, get us to our current station in life, or form our ideas of self, place and strength. I’ve been tied up by work for several months now and in consequence made no time for writing for myself. After sixteen hours at the office, there was no place for story-telling at the end of my days. Now, what I wrote to my ladyfriends made me pretty happy — it was lovely to write, easy to say, and exciting to share. And I trust they won’t mind that I spread my part of our conversation a little more widely here.

The question, paraphrased: what women helped you along the way?

My answer, in three parts:

I have a lot of different answers to that one. Mostly because I think getting to the place I am today took a lot of right and wrong turns.

1.ladies/ lady-forces that shaped who I am today (negative):

When I was younger, like junior high age, I read a lot of trashy YA novels. Sweet Valley High and so on. Not because I liked them or felt any connection to the material, but because I felt like I was doing everything wrong and that reading “girl books” would help me get myself in line. So, in a funny way, all that trash did inform who I became, because half the contents was totally foolish and the other half was stuff I attempted in an effort to fit in but still made no headway on. And ultimately, because I figured I had done everything I could including following a handbook of girlishness, I gave up trying to “fit in” and just let things be.

2. ladies/ lady-forces that shaped who I am today (positive):

Funny women have made me ok with who I am. Ladies who write about being messy and sloppy and discordant and who perform from an honest place. Dorothy Parker, Tina Fey, Carol Burnet, Bernadette Peters, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Judy Tenuta, Winona Ryder, Elvira Kurt. Ladies who think it’s hilarious to swear, who have a sense of self-reflexive (not self-deprecating) humour, and who use their humour to poke fun as much at women who feel compelled to conform as at the men and women who expect this conformity. But, also “nice” ladies. I have no time for the “bitch” motif and no interest in demanding things from the world. I don’t believe in ass-kicking my way through life. I don’t respect a “fuck you, this is who I am” attitude, because it lacks civility and ultimately makes people doubt that you deserve to be respected and taken seriously. Which brings me to my third formative influence.

3. well-mannered ladies and gentlemen too:

I think the singlemost lacking thing in today’s world is good manners. This goes for at table, in public places, online, in day-to-day discussions, in how people relate to others close to them and to colleagues and strangers, in the media (both official and social), and in how we debate and discuss things that are important to us. I think too many people lack manners when approaching difficult subjects and emotional situations, and that the western world has lost sight of how far a little politeness goes. I can’t speak for other parts of the world because I have never been to those parts.

I think dress codes (not proscribed school uniform stuff, but more codified understandings) are important. I think it’s gross that we leave the house in yoga pants, track suits, cargo shorts, flip-flop sandals, with bra-straps slipping out beneath collars or sleeves. I think it’s gross that we eat while walking down the street or leaning against a building on lunch-break. I think it’s gross that people need to be asked to give up seats on public transit or reminded to remove their satchels because they are unaware of the space they occupy and how others might need to share it. It’s especially gross that we move from place to place while wearing head-phones so that we can’t hear someone saying “excuse me”, and that asking someone to turn down the volume on an i-device so we can’t all hear their music leaking out is a situation that even exists.

I think the current fixation on “bullying” as a trend and a cause to rally against is really more centred on chickens coming home to roost–we have raised three generations of children without proper manners and without suggesting that there is a difference between appropriate and inappropriate, and without curbing freedoms on kids to at least a certain degree…and now they’ve grown up a right pack of little assholes who think they are not accountable for hurting others and don’t seem to appreciate that actions have consequences.

And so, the third group of ladies who helped me become the person I am today is well-mannered ladies. Old-fashioned and contemporary. Emily Post, Miss Manners, ladies with advice columns, the lady who taught my comportment class when I was small. But also ladies in general who do or did move through the world with grace and class, and who remind me that swearing might be hilarious but it’s not classy or nice, that sometimes covering my tattoos is the smart choice (and does not compromise my identity or disguise who I am), that sometimes the proper thing to do is give up something I “want” in favour of something I “should”, and that how one lays a table is important.

Now — commence with the jokes about the table getting laid.

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