YOU TOO?

When I first received the invitation to join the “Me Too” movement through Facebook, I asked myself if it was fair to add my name. Had I really been abused or marginalized by men? I like men. I sleep with one. I don’t feel that my sex has held me back from success. However, I am aware that this is a direct result of the brave feminists who paved the way for me to enjoy more freedom today than women have throughout most of history. Because of them, the politically correct attitude towards feminism today is to support it. Men who don’t – beware “Me Too.”

I thought back to those times in my life when I was coerced into sex I didn’t want, was hit or hurt by a man, or felt judged solely on my attractiveness or sexuality. Like a lot of women, I didn’t have to think too hard. Minor incidents throughout my adulthood sprang to mind – the times I’d been invited to “discuss my career” by powerful men in private settings, been groped on the bus or the dance floor, or was passed over for some position because a more attractive woman appealed to the man in power. All of these incidents incited a deep sense of injustice and rage, as well as a sense of impotency. What can be done to ameliorate this state of affairs where the light of “political correctness” does not shine bright enough to change these age-old male attitudes of entitlement to female submission?

The memory that had my fingers hovering over the keyboard in response, though, was the beating I took from a man in my early twenties. I moved in with him three days after we met, because I was broke and telling myself that I had “fallen in love.” After three months of bliss, however, he started doing strange things like turning the cold water off while I was showering, waking me up in the middle of the night and tickling me mercilessly, and asking me to perform sexual acts that scared and demoralized me. I participated because I wanted to get that bliss back. It didn’t work.

Now, I was financially dependent upon this person and unable to just leave. I kept trying to please him to no avail, but despite his dissatisfaction with my performance as a “girlfriend,” he wasn’t about to let me go. I began secretly saving money to move out, but when he discovered my intentions, a violent confrontation broke out that resulted in him assaulting me. I escaped to a women’s shelter, and then managed to get myself set up in sublet rental apartment. Not knowing where I lived, my ex began haunting my workplace. One day he followed me home, came up behind me while opening the door to my place, and pushed me inside. He got me on the ground and began to beat my head against the floor until I almost passed out. In desperation, I began yelling the words “I love you” over and over, which did make him stop. He then threw me on the bed and raped me. Now, this is one case where telling a man "I love you" doesn't constitute a "yes." However, I counted myself lucky to have been raped and not killed.

After he left, I called the police. Two male officers arrived who told me that I would be safer not to press charges. They told me that a restraining order would be expensive and ineffective. They advised me to simply cease all contact with this person and watch my back. I followed their advice, but that didn’t stop the harassment. My now-contrite ex doubled his efforts, leaving letters on my door, messages on my phone, and calling my friends to ascertain my whereabouts.

The worst was the fear I felt. Wherever I went, I was looking over my shoulder. Whenever I saw a man the same size and build as my attacker, bright hot terror coursed through me. I had never before been afraid of men. Now, I had an intimate understanding of how their sheer physical and economic power put me at a disadvantage. I realized that in the final analysis, a woman has very little choice when a man decides to dominate her physically. This state of affairs has led to domination in every facet of female existence.
Eventually, I moved to another city to escape. A thousand miles away, I was still looking over my shoulder. It took many years to get over my fear of tall men with long dark hair. Eventually I married a nice man and my memories of abuse began to fade. Twenty years later, my attacker contacted me through the Internet. He asked for the opportunity to apologize. He told me he had been through many years of therapy and now recognized how badly he’d hurt me. He then asked where I lived and if I would consider seeing him the next time I was nearby. Not a chance!

The fear I felt then has now faded, but the sense of personal responsibility for my own health and safety remains. I remember people warning me that I was foolish to place my trust in that man. I remember people telling me he had a violent temper, was controlling, and might hurt me. I ignored them all. I just wanted to be adored and taken care of, and I paid the price. It is a fact that even in today’s age, women’s earning power is less than a man’s. I made far less money than my attacker, and the prospect of not worrying about bills anymore was a powerful motivator in my decision to place myself in his power, though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time. However, before I met him, I had plenty to eat, a roof over my head, clothes on my back. I was surviving just fine. I just wanted more comfort and less responsibility. I realize now that the beatings and indignities I suffered were a direct result of my own poor decision-making, and taught me a powerful lesson. The subsequent decisions I made throughout my adulthood were colored by my experience. I never again placed myself in a dependent position. I learned to take care of myself.

There is a saying, “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me.” This is the thought that sprang to mind as my fingers still hovered over the keyboard. I asked myself if the reason for my hesitation was due to a lingering sense of shame. Do I want to sign my name to this list? Do I want people to know that I allowed this traumatic experience to happen to me? Is it really anyone’s business but my own?

I listen to the conversations that have been ignited in response to the “Me Too” phenomenon. The men I know are now reviewing their own behavior, asking themselves if “they too” qualify as abusers. They are wondering if it’s OK to compliment a woman in the workplace or to flirt in social settings. Some of them are also wondering if they can safely approach a woman they are attracted to without fear of reprisal. I certainly hope that “Me Too” isn’t going to stop them from doing that. As I said, I like men. I sleep with one. If he hadn’t initiated our relationship by flirting, I would probably be sleeping alone.
The solidarity I feel with women who have been dominated and abused is intact. But personally, the activism I choose to participate in is private. Today, I don’t tolerate abuse of any kind. I can see it coming and I either remove myself from the situation or deal with it head-on. Once, I slugged a guy on the dance floor for grabbing my breast. I was immediately surrounded by a group of men who separated me from my attacker, took him outside, and laid a good beating on him. Of course it appears this person got exactly what he deserved. Though my sense of dignity was certainly compromised, I do wonder if the punishment fit the crime. I wonder if my defenders were motivated less by gallantry than by mob rule.

Though I recognize that the “Me Too” movement has advanced the public conversation about misogyny, and that this is a good thing, I view it with caution. For me, however - and I speak only for me - personal responsibility trumps victimhood. Finger-pointing has a dangerous tendency to lead toward injustice; the pendulum of violence and oppression swings both ways.
I realize that many women feel differently and have good reasons for doing so. Perhaps they may view my attitude as a betrayal, inspired more by remaining vestiges of subjugation than personal responsibility. However, it is my very femininity that inspires the wish for reconciliation based on compassion, understanding, and direct conversation. Joining a movement started on Facebook, with the potential to ruin lives either justly or unjustly, leaves too wide a margin for error.

I have forgiven my attacker, but I will certainly never forget how I placed myself in his power. If given the choice, I would not “out” him. Ultimately I believe the choices he made left him with his own trauma. In my experience, people get what they deserve in this life, and misogynists are no different. While female subjugation is alive and well even in today’s “politically correct” environment, I never forget that the responsibility for my life lies in my own hands. I don’t need a mob behind me to accuse and punish those who have tried to dominate me. I simply need to use my own intelligence, resources, and experience to as my guide.

The deep divide that exists between men and women is without a doubt based on the power differential between the sexes. Women can never take for granted the advances made in the last century towards female emancipation. I remember my history: the thousands and thousands of women burned at the stake as result of group hysteria. But here’s the thing; as many women were reporting their neighbors as men. The tribal instinct to separate “us” from “them” isn’t just sexual, it’s human. Women can be just as guilty of it as men. My fear is that that by saying “Me Too,” I am joining a club that has the potential to become a mob.

Have you been dominated, humiliated or marginalized due to your sex? Me too. But looking through the lens of personal responsibility, I can clearly see how I invited it. I remember enjoying the flattery and attention I was initially given by my attacker. The poor judgement I used by moving in with him after three days was inspired not only by ego satisfaction, but also the prospect of financial security. I placed myself at his mercy for my own purposes. I wanted to feel admired and I wanted to be taken care of.

In the end, I didn’t add my name to the “Me Too” list. My sense was and is that the backlash from violence and oppression can swing too far in the opposite direction, creating injustice at the opposite end of the scale. Men are indeed acculturated even in modern society to dominate women, and the “Me Too” movement has brought this fact to light. I think of the many women trapped in jobs they can’t leave despite sexual harassment in the workplace. I also think of the women who sacrifice their own self-respect by using their sexuality to advance their careers, security or ego. I believe there are as many of them as there are those who are blameless. I know because I have made similar decisions, and suffered the cost.

With all the respect I hold towards those who resist this power by joining forces against it, I suggest that “you too” remember that domination and subjugation are not solely the province of males. And to the males who are now questioning their own behavior, I offer the same advice given to me by my friendly neighbourhood policemen, with the reminder that “You Too” can become the subject of mob rule. 

Gentlemen, watch your backs.

How I Lost My Muse, Quit the Biz and Found Myself

“You’re quitting music? Are you NUTS?”

That was the unspoken reaction on their faces when I told them, after 20 years of chasing the music biz brass ring, that I was so over jumping through hoops. No more Photoshopped promo photos. No more self-penned artist bios liberally gilded with fool’s gold. Never again the swap of sweat for glory, tears for clown-face, pride for a tip jar. Never again to wake up in the deep valley of an aged motel room bed, drive all day and arrive to discover the venue’s utter absence of any happy combination of the following: promotion, soundman, sound system, decent coffee, food, digs or audience.

Never again to close my eyes in the middle of chaos, to rock out from the guts in defiance of it all and look up to find an audience rapt with catharsis, realizing - this is what makes it all worthwhile.

OK, I am nuts. But that’s what everybody said when I got INTO this business.  At some point, every committed artist has to choose between common sense and a dream. We pity those who choose the nine-to-five life - the benefits, the retirement plan, the permanent place of residence. We live in service to the holy muse. Besides, we’re going to be rich and famous. We are driven – inspired – and broke.

It’s been a few years since my last show to promote “Nobody’s Baby” - my fourth and possibly final full-length studio release. One night, deep into the tour, everything was clicking: the room, the sound, the set-list, the patter. The audience was clapping and laughing on cue, the promoter happy and CD sales good. After a couple hundred shows over the course of a year, I had it down to a fine art. Except it didn’t feel like art. It felt like a machine. I realized that I wasn’t playing music any more. I was acting, and doing a pretty damn good job of it.

And that’s not why I came to music. I came because music made me feel real. Myself and my fellow songwriters and musicians, a circle of the blind leading the blind, learning chords off each other and stealing melodies from the greats. Busking on the seawall. Playing at open mikes. Braving blues jams with our acoustic guitars. We hungered for greatness, despaired at our poverty, waited for buses in the rain. I wouldn’t have missed it.

It wasn’t until years later, listening to the cassette recordings I sent home to impress my family, when I realized just how naive I was. Blissfully unaware of how lousy my meter, pitch, tone or craft actually was, I blasted into the microphone with all the exuberance of a toddler in a pile of pots and pans. How my poor parents must have shuddered, my musical offerings having the exact opposite of their intended effect. My brother used to ask how my “career” was going with two fingers waggling quotation marks on either side of his smug, mocking cop-face. I persevered on smatterings of kindly applause, audiences also blissfully unaware of how my pitiful ego would magnify the sounds of those few hands clapping.

Fifteen years and countless shows later, the critic’s writing is there on the wall of the Internet, if anyone cared to Google it. (I confess. In my darker moments, I have Googled myself. Pathetic!) But as Leisel said in the Sound of Music, I must have done something good, because “they” said so. Some of them, anyway. Regardless, the true measure of my success were those moments, in studio, onstage, or most often when writing, when the universe flowed through me, connecting my heartbeat with the pulse of all life. Those times sustained me later as I stood humiliated before an empty venue, a deserted merch booth, and a plummeting bottom line. Songwriting took me from addiction to sobriety, from solitude to community, from marriage to divorce, from the promise of life to the finality of death. Maybe the real story lies there. I need a new life.

Somewhere between the joy of creation and sharing it with the world, I turned into an office worker. The drudgery of writing grants, booking shows, designing promo, stuffing envelopes, and maintaining a presence on the web came to dominate my life. The worst was the financial necessity of polishing my image, which simultaneously squashed my spirit. Roughly 10 percent of my time was spent on music: the rest was about getting the gig. And no matter what I achieved, it was less than I’d aimed for. My contemporaries raced past me on the charts and festival circuits, more talented, better looking, better connected, or perhaps spending less time contemplating their navels than I. Ouch. But even for artists with the kind of “buzz” I could only dream of, the financial rewards of the music business are less than stellar. That leaves ego gratification and the music itself as the primary motivators. For me, the pursuit of one conflicts with the other, reducing the chance of success on any level.

So much time spent trying to attract attention and not on enough on worthwhile living. Too exhausted to feel the songs I was bringing and too bereft of spirit to write anything new worth sharing. A new life? I would make a bang-up publicist, artist manager, graphic designer, booking agent or grant writer. These are valid skills learned at the temple of my muse. Some people make good money that way, lots of them ex-performers. However, I never worked music for money, and I’m not about to start now.

So I’ve gone out and found myself a new muse: Florence Nightingale, the Lady with the Lamp, who hopefully will lead me someplace where I can be sure of the hours, the workload, and the benefits, which will not include rider, spotlights, or backstage passes. She assures me there will be no glory, but I will no longer have to stump for it, and may make some small but real difference in someone’s quality of life. 

Nobody is going to roll over and die if they never hear another song from Leslie Alexander. But if they’re about to, I will be doubly equipped. “The Singing Nurse,” a label intoned by not a few friends in embarrassed “support” for my decision, calls to mind Sally Field, ridiculous in a wind-blown habit, utterly lacking the dignity I seek. I appreciate the thought. I doubt very much I’ll be lugging my guitar with me on rounds, but I do believe it will have a place in my toolkit.

Witness my last New Years Eve gig: an audience of two. The woman, bedridden with MS. Her husband, dying of cancer. Me, singing my heart out. The last time they’d heard a live acoustic guitar was years ago, in their old farmhouse kitchen, before a monsoon of bad luck hit them. The last time I’d played was for an audience of three hundred, with a fruit plate and free beer back in the green room.  

“Oh, don’t make me leave here, give me today, give me tomorrow . . .

Cause I’ve got a message for my Maker

Please don’t take me ‘til I’m not afraid to go.”

I sang for them, but also for me. I am not afraid to go. What I am afraid of is stagnation. I must find a life that’s worth writing about. One that doesn’t include the preening, parading and self-promotion being a full-time independent recording artist requires.

Will I perform or record original music again? I don’t know. My guitar is calling to me again, not to practice, but to play. So I joined a classic rock and country band; we call ourselves Four Wheel Drive, and who knew it would feel so good to try and sing somebody else's songs for a change. Melodies, rhythms, and chord progressions of my own are creeping back into my biology, demanding expression. When they insist maybe I’ll let them loose. But I will choose my venues and listeners with my heart, on my own time, on my own terms.

Times without number, an audience member has said to me with longing, “I’ve always wanted to play music.” Somewhere along the line, they bought the idea that you have to be a virtuoso to share in that joy. In the old days, before TV and the Internet, everybody played. There were no superstars; music was part of the community fabric. Today, everyone brandishing a guitar must be either a potential “idol” or a deluded failure. I suggest that music belongs not just in a concert hall but at the kitchen table. That those who love it, don’t just buy it, but play it. Music can enhance, not consume, one’s existence. So I say to all the wanna-be’s out there – professional, amateur, or totally green - take out your earbuds, invite some friends over and bust out the ukuleles. The muse is waiting. Let’s jam.