On rewind days, I bring you a post that has previously appeared at my other now-defunct blog, Right to Bleed. If you’ve read it before, skip on by, or go ahead and enjoy the rewind.
This one is from January 30th, 2009.
Every time I go into a bathroom stall in a public place, I am reminded of a warning I received from a now-forgotten source long, long ago. Don’t hang your purse on the hook on the door, because thieves will reach over the door and steal your purse. I don’t know if this is still common advice; I haven’t heard it lately. Even in the face of the warning, I have never failed to hang my purse from the door. Even as I remember it every single time, I do not heed the warning. Regardless of not heeding it, though, it still takes up room in my brain. As do countless other warnings and tactics taught to me from nebulous sources over the years.
I know all of these rules, and countless more, and remember them frequently, even the ones I don’t chose to adhere to. Is the world such a scary place that I must constantly remind myself of a gazillion little safety details? Of the millions of women, purses, and bathrooms, how many have actually fallen prey to the over-the-door-thief? How many purses have been saved by millions of us sweating this detail? And might those saved purses merely been stolen in some other manner? Does the dodge of one little crime actually prevent crime overall? Or are all of these little mantras simply the illusion of control? Do they serve to do good, or simply serve to make us all afraid and a little less free, a little more compliant and reserved than we might otherwise be?
Like many other cultural campaigns, each little warning seems innocuous. If you’re the person who gets swindled by a trash-rifling thief, shredding documents seems like an easy enough precaution. It doesn’t take much energy, right? It’s a little thing. Why not take this one small measure, if it might prevent a very big problem? But saving yourself from the perils of trash-riflers doesn’t do anything to protect you from over-the-door purse snatchers. So, it isn’t just one little thing that you must do to protect yourself. It’s countless, limitless bullet points that you must constantly be diligent about. And the chances that you will fall victim to the trash-thief OR the purse snatcher OR the home burgler OR the parking lot guy OR the drink-doser are still so tiny.
We’re told that the equation goes like this: You just have to do this one tiny thing to prevent this other huge thing. But I don’t think the statistics stack up that way. The reality is that you have to do this HUGE mental thing in order to prevent a probably-will-never happen. Plus, you get co-opted to be a criminal against yourself. Now not only is your pharmacist out to get you, YOU are out to get you. If your pharmacist doesn’t steal two pills from you, you will surely take up the slack by stealing away your own time, your peace, your faith in the goodness of the world, your relaxation, the very safety of your mind.
And once those little nuggets of cultural-wide fear-balm are in your brain, they’re hard to forget. I never put paper down on the toilet seat, never walk with my keys in hand, I take drinks from strangers, and I trust that the bank and my pharmacist haven’t shorted me. And yet these warnings cross my mind anyway, much as my mother’s voice looms up in my brain to convince me I’ve sinned, when I haven’t believed in sin for 15 years.
I wish I could start a global movement to ridicule people who pass off these little nuggets as must-haves for your daily itemized to-do list.
I was in a long-term relationship once with someone whom I could never please. Every other thing I did was wrong in some way or another. Something I wore. A certain look I would get. This phrase or that. A habit. My likes and dislikes. In an effort to keep the peace, I went through mental gymnastics trying to remember everything I was supposed to do or not do. I thought of this as (cue ominous inner voice) THE CHECKLIST. Do this. Don’t do that. Say this. Don’t say that. Wear this. Don’t wear that. If you have any experience in or around dysfunctional relationships, I’m sure you’re not surprised when I say that my efforts to adhere to the ever-growing checklist had absolutely no effect on the stability of our relationship. Not only was he always disapproving, it was always something NEW. My checklist did not live up to its supposed ability to prevent what I feared. For a long time, though, I took each new infraction as evidence not of my flawed reasoning, but of the necessity of adding yet another thing to the list.
I think the typical admonishments of ways to keep ourselves safe fall into this same trap. We have a dysfunctional relationship with life and with the rest of the world. We have THE CHECKLIST – a constantly growing list of ways to act or not act that will supposedly keep us safe. And when we hear of a way in which someone was harmed, we don’t just say, “That sucks and shit happens.” Nope, we add something to the list. Someone is diligent about hand washing, but gets sick from the salad they ate the night they cooked chicken? OH MY GOD, you have to make sure to use different cutting boards when cooking! You wash your hands and use different cutting boards but got sick from your chicken anyway? OH MY GOD, you need a thermometer to make sure your chicken reaches the necessary temperature! You wash your hands, use different cutting boards, and cook your chicken thoroughly, but your morning eggs make you sick instead? OH MY GOD, don’t you know you can’t store your eggs in the door of the refrigerator?!?!?!
You diligently keep your purse in your lap in the bathroom, but it gets stolen off your seat in the diner? Add to the list that you need to loop your feet through the strap. Keep it close in the bathroom and in the diner, but get it yanked off your arm on the street? Keep your hand tight around the strap next time. Get it stolen by a kid who runs by and cuts the strap, slipping it from your grasp? You’re not sure what you did wrong, but as soon as you figure it out, you’ll add it to the list!
Holy shit! Life is an abusive partner, constantly letting you know how it’s all your fault, and you’re the insecure participant, constantly agreeing and adding stuff to the checklist. Sooner or later, you’re going to get it right, your checklist will be complete, and then nothing bad will ever happen to you. When bad stuff happens to other people, it will be because their checklist was inferior.
These days, in my relationships, I do what I can to banish the checklist. If a partner of mine says they’d rather I did or didn’t do something, I try to evaluate how I actually feel about it. Sometimes I agree or it’s such a small thing that it doesn’t matter whether I do or don’t do it in the future. Sometimes I don’t want to change the thing, and I have to make myself keep doing it or not doing it, in an effort to battle my own tendency to checklist the preferences of others. I think it would be worthwhile to consider the requests we make of partners before ever even mentioning them, though. Once you state a criticism of someone, they can’t un-hear it, and it can be hard not to add it to a list.
In life, I also try to avoid the checklist. Putting paper down on the toilet seat? Seriously?! What exactly is going to happen to me if I don’t? Someone in a discussion group once proclaimed that they didn’t want their vagina coming into contact with a potentially infected surface. She got the resounding reply of, “Um, if you’re vagina is involved with the seat, you’re doing it wrong. Back to Bathroom 101 with you.” Paper on the toilet seat is right out. Shredding my documents before they go in the trash is right out. If someone wants to rob me, I’m sure they can succeed. If they don’t get my info from my trash, I’m sure there’s another way that I haven’t yet added to my list. Better to not make that list! I’m not going to jump through hoops to prevent that crime. Do I cook my chicken all the way through? Yeah. Although once I was having this similar conversation while cooking and to make a point about what I am or am not afraid of, I licked the raw chicken. Trust me, there are reasons not to lick a raw chicken that don’t involve whatever it is you’re supposed to catch from it. Ew.
Like with the relationship requests, it’s hard to un-hear these little safety admonishments that are blithely tossed about. This whole rant started because I’ve never put my purse anywhere BUT the hook on the door, yet tonight I’m sitting there in the bathroom of a restaurant staring at the hook, aware that I’m violating some rule I don’t even remember specifically hearing. I realized that I’m in a dysfunctional relationship with public fucking bathrooms. This is why I want to start the ridicule campaign. I wish it was unpopular to spout safety nuggets without actually considering the worthwhile-ness of your cause. Next time you hear someone tell you not to hang your purse on the hook in the bathroom, laugh at them and tell them they’re an idiot. Or surreptitiously sneak into the bathroom after them and steal their purse from underneath the next stall, because that shit would be funny.
Remember to bring a box cutter, in case they’re a foot looper.