The Authenticity Experiment, the power edition. It used to be like an electric shock that hit me all at once. Let me explain.
When I still lived at home with my parents, my mother went on an ironing strike. I mean, I don’t really know if she deliberately struck, I just know that one day I noticed that she refused to iron my father’s shirts and handkerchiefs, the linen table clothes, and the embroidered and lace napkins.
Maybe my father bitched one too many times about the ironing job on his white or blue oxford cloth button down shirts (in the years before he had his shirts tailor-made and then professionally cleaned). Maybe her hands couldn’t juggle one more task—an almost adolescent butch oldest child, an anxious second child, an alingual third child, a toddler who spoke in a language only her sisters understood, an alcoholic husband, plus three meals a day for kids with food intolerances, and a house to keep as chaos-free as possible, the better to minimize any potential drama when the husband arrived home from work.
At any rate, she quit ironing unless it was an emergency. Then she’d be in the garage, standing on a remnant of the green wool carpeting she’d had installed in the living room, formal dining room, and main hallway, ironing one of my father’s shirts. She used a shiny chrome Sunbeam iron with a braided cloth cord. The iron belonged originally to my grandmother and it weighed at least four pounds. The weight alone could have probably pressed a shirt. But plugged in and heated, that iron could spiff up sleeves, crease the top edge of collars, and press plackets in no time.
Just don’t accidentally touch the side of the iron because it shorted out somewhere along that brown and white braided cord, and the entire iron pulsed with electricity. Often, my little finger brushed the side of the iron and I’d feel the electricity travel up my right arm, through my lats, and continue down my right leg until it hit the grounding rubber sole of my tennis shoe.
You know, when electricity is coursing through your body like that, you have to willingly disengage the part of you that is touching the ungrounded wire or device. Even the relatively mild 110 volts of an ungrounded iron, though, is enough to slow your thinking and response time, so that the electricity keeps snaking through you until you summon all the will you can to—in this case—fling your right hand away from the iron.
Then, if you’re me, you cry and storm inside and say, “I don’t why we can’t have a god damned grounded iron like normal people!” And you abandon the button shirt for a t-shirt.
That’s how it used to feel in my body anytime someone called me Sir. Like electricity running up and down my nerve pathways and with no way to mitigate the buzzing shock of shame without letting go of outcomes or using all my will to turn and face the person who just misgendered me and correct them.
Because back then, back before I owned who I was, to be called sir must mean I was an ugly woman and not a brilliant, dapper queer. Being called sir must mean I was unwanted by either sex, instead of being highly prized by femme lesbians. Being called sir must mean I was breaking all the gender rules—and not in a good way.
The shame would hang on—and in—me in such a way that the only way to push it down was to drink and eat, liquor and fatty foods. A great way to feel better about not conforming to the cultural ideal.
In a strange, full-circle kind of way, I embraced the sir one Christmas night in the town in which I grew up. My parents had already moved away and I’d been in Vacaville with the Opera Singer and her family for the bulk of the holiday. I came to my sister’s house which is lovely, but which didn’t at the time feel like home and still has no room for me to stay, unless I want to sleep on an aerobed in the living room, which I did not—nor, should I add, did my sister want. So I went across the freeway to the Marriot.
It was Christmas night, and a cold one at that, and the front desk clerk was working alone and, unbeknownst to me, off getting extra blankets for a little old lady who couldn’t warm up. So I waited, patiently even, leaning my back and elbows against the front desk while I looked over the trying-to-be-hip-but-really-actually-corporate-looking-lobby, decorated with fake noble fir trees hung with huge violently bright Christmas balls—lime green, fuschia, orange, and yellow. A corporate executive’s idea of hip, I suppose. And maybe it would have been hip if this were the Ace or the Jupiter hotels in Portland, Oregon or New York City. But this was the Courtyard Marriot in Novato, California.
I should say that I don’t dislike this hotel. If you get a room at the backside on the end, you can see San Pablo Bay which drains to San Francisco Bay which drains to the Pacific. The hotel, built on the edge of Hamilton Airforce Base, has pictures of the old base, famous because it is from here that the Enola Gay took off. I remember going to the base with my dad for an airshow and looking at all the planes, sitting in the bleachers with him as the Blue Angels flew over and he wept because everybody knows that Naval pilots beat Airforce pilots every time. You try and land on an aircraft carrier with a 500-foot runway and snag your tailhook on one of the four arresting wires and stop a plane moving at 150 miles per hour with full throttles (Google it) in little more than 300 feet. Yeah. That’s what I’m saying.
But I digress.
The clerk finally returned, but I didn’t hear her come up behind me, lost in my musings about hipness and tailhooks. She said, “I’m sorry you had to wait, sir. How can I help you?”
I should tell you I wore my black Carhartt Detroit jacket and my hair, while not buzz cut as it is now, was short. I turned to face the clerk—my skin, my earrings, the white gold sapphire solitaire necklace I wore at the time, the high color in my cheeks from my Polish and Irish background, all of this giving away the gender I was assigned at birth—and she blushed and said, “Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry, ma’am. Ma’am how can I help you?”
I smiled and felt genuinely calm. No electric shock at being called sir. I said, “No worries. When you dress like this, you have to expect being called sir. It’s okay.”
It’s okay? What was I saying?
I was saying, it was okay, and I meant it.
I couldn’t tell you—I still can’t tell you—what had changed except that I’d just left a woman who loved me for the way I was, for my masculine-of-center self. I felt comfortable in my Carhartt jacket. I spent a relaxed time with my siblings. I was, perhaps, for the first time in my life, running all my power through me and, rather than being ungrounded, it left me completely self-possessed.
Hey, if you love the book The Authenticity Experiment: Lessons From the Best & Worst Year of My Life will you please post a review of it where ever it is you post reviews? We’re not talking book report here. We’re just talking two lines—say that you loved it and why. Easy peasy. And, thank you.
Looking forward to meeting u Jan 24 at peg,s House. Will buy books then.
What a great post for the new year! Running our own power, being grounded and self-possessed = confidence. I’m not butch but am a dyke, wear men’s clothes and am tall with short hair, so I’ve been sirred a lot. I used to be insulted, but in the past decade have become relaxed about it; it also happens much less often. Like you said, it’s a natural mistake, no harm done.
“I was saying, it was okay, and I meant it.
“…I was, perhaps, for the first time in my life, running all my power through me and, rather than being ungrounded, it left me completely self-possessed.”
Kate, your writing is delightful, including your “digressions” and your skillful way of weaving threads into metaphors. In every post there is something with which I resonate. Here, it’s the experience of surprising myself by realizing I had let go of attachment: in my case, to whether a man in whom I was interested responded to a woman who was clearly and publicly signalling her attraction to him in front of me. I, too, told her it was ok, I meant it, and I was not attached to the outcome. What you share is so affirming. Thank you!
You’re welcome, Shelia. I’m glad you found a thread that resonated for you.
Beautifully written and moving. Thank you, Kate