The quill pen in Peter Pan’s hat punctuated the end of our long week with an exclamation mark.
Frank, cast as Michael, Wendy’s younger brother, missed both dress rehearsals because he “looked green” and nearly fainted from fever in the spotlight. Finally healthy enough to stand upright on opening night, Frank nailed his lines but was aimless on stage, a little boy in button-down pajamas, eyes outlined in black, as if from Pan’s inkwell.
And Irie, battling Vocal Chord Disfunction, a real condition according to her speech therapist, caused by bronchitis and a decade of binge singing, needed to use a combination of heat, massage, and meds called Dulera so that she could successfully croon and browbeat the Lost Boys. Who better to play Captain Hook than my broad-shouldered, gregariously booming force of a daughter?
Never a princess; always a villain.
In recent years she’d been cast as Scar from The Lion King, the dubious Willy Wonka of The Chocolate Factory, the fire-breathing Dragon from Shrek, and Mushu from Mulan. Though he is arguably “good” in a loveable way, Mushu is also loud and, at times, a threat to Mulan’s safekeeping.
As Irie swaggered across stage, in her third performance, brandishing a hook and sword, my step-mom, Nancy, and I laughed out loud from the front row, our first-ever stint sitting so close. More slaphappy and reckless than in earlier shows, my daughter became Hook incarnate, growling, lurching, and singing alto –
Who’s the swin-i-est swine in the world? (Captain Hook!) Who’s the dirtiest dog in this wonderful world? (Captain Hook!)
Always the villain; never the victim.
Or so I hoped and prayed, despite evidence lately that the world, especially for girls and women, is still a very cruel place. “I won’t grow up” – Peter’s famous song – is more sad than silly if, like me, you listen to the news. In the throes of a #MeToo resurgence in which disgraced male leaders dominate headlines, it only stands to reason that innocent boys becoming men is a shame. If you’re a mother to boys, you probably fret for them, as I do mine.
For my daughters, I tie my stomach in knots.
Twice already this year, Irie has found herself trapped in troubling scenarios, adult men exploiting their positions of power, latching themselves to her gift for music. These guys are not Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or Bill O’Reilly or Donald Trump, but in her microcosm of the world, they seem in hindsight like forebodings, as if she were detecting signs of storms months before the deluge.
In the spring, an Oshkosh Area School District staff member pulled Irie from class. Apparently, he’d been teaching himself a song on the piano and was seeking a capable vocalist for a duet. In a closed room, during school hours, she nervously sang at his request, like Scheherazade from Arabian Nights. If she sang on-key, she’d spare her life.
Then this summer, a couple of weeks into private guitar lessons, she texted me that her male instructor “weirded her out.” Upon initially meeting him, I’d repressed my own paranoia. He swooned over Irie’s natural talent – she can play almost anything by ear – but I’d replaced misgivings with pride until we began to share openly in our unease. The guy made awkward and inappropriate attempts at humor. What kind of a teacher says he wants to know less about a class called “Teen Money” and more about a non-existent one called “Teen Sex?”
And why would he bait her with mentioning the so-called “dirty positions” for holding a guitar if “he couldn’t get away with teaching her those anyways?”
We decided to cancel her weekly guitar lessons. Leaving behind steps required for a promising career in the performing arts is a recurring theme at home and at large.
Sexual harassment and its precursors are wearying, but for many of us, life is a test of endurance we can only sustain by sharing our shocking and painful moments. Solidarity fills in empty spaces otherwise occupied by loneliness and shame.
Once when I was shopping at a World Market in Madison, a man who resembled the actor Gary Busey approached me and asked, “Do you give blow jobs?” By the time I could report him to the sales clerk, he’d fled the scene.
Another time, when I was breastfeeding baby Leo at a Pick N Save in Milwaukee, a hunched old man, seemingly 80 years old, toddled toward me in the dairy section and said, “You’d better stop that. You’re making me horny.”
This summer at Festival Foods, another old man pointed his finger at me while I searched the shelves. “You girls shouldn’t be allowed to wear such short dresses.” I wish I’d said, “This is a tunic and leggings, you moron,” or better yet, “Go to hell,” but the re-calibration process happens in slow motion. The jolt of such unexpected and vulgar accusations, in public spaces no less, is like bumping up against an electric fence.
The university, where I work, bastion of progressive and enlightened people, is no different. I’ve been told by colleagues through their designated spokesperson, that I didn’t really earn my professorship. The English Department was doing me a favor. My hiring was rigged. To that end, I'd better not try anything funny around here -- like ask a question or express an opinion. Counterfeit employees, after all, are not granted such rights.
But rest assured, I was told, as if being offered a consolation prize, so-and-so thought I was hot, a jovial little explanation for why I'd been invited aboard this ship I often wished to sink. I had originally interviewed and was hired within 48 hours of Irie’s birth. Nothing says sexy like those first weeks post-partum. My body had been split wide apart. Although I was dressed professionally, beneath it all, I was bleeding and leaking milk but doing what women do best – trying to "look smart" since being smart didn't matter. I needed to mask whatever perceived ineptitude would be used against me for the next couple of decades.
Sexual harassment, or even a single micro-aggression, works wonders. Ruthless, sadistic, or even simple small-mindedness catches me off guard. I am literally dumbstruck, and then, by extension, exactly where they want me: tongue-tied and at a loss for words. I thought you were a writer, for God’s sake.
I tell my daughters these stories; and Irie tells me hers.
For months now, I’ve been silently rebelling against the university, refusing to participate in the mandatory Title IX training online because I’m aware that this “chalk talk” is one way for the university to protect itself legally against accusations of sexual harassment in the workplace. If we all sign our names on the dotted line, the institution frees itself from liability, the equivalent of those non-disclosure clauses in women’s contracts that prevented them from going public with sexual harassment. Laws protect powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and the ever-unfolding leader board, from NBC and NPR execs to male actors we used to admire.
In a good faith effort this week, I finally logged in to participate. According to the UW Title IX training manual, the university wants “to cultivate an environment where everyone feels supported and valued.” I’d like to hope so, even if cynicism and faith feel a bit like the same thing.
On Saturday at the back of St. John’s Church, Hook reached inside me and popped a bubble of anxiety with her sharp grapple. Irie was big and strong and loud. Playing villains for my daughter was both ironic and something to rejoice. Villains do not become victims, except in the end, when the audience applauds their downfall.
The most hilarious part of Irie’s Hook performance was her singular source of panic – the crocodile. The fiercest pirate on earth fears no predators, except for the one she does.
“He liked my (sic) hand so much that he has followed me ever since – from land to land, from sea to sea, he follows the ship, licking his lips for the rest of me,” she recited, grandiose and larger than life.
But by lucky chance, this croc swallowed a clock, and Hook hears him approaching, tick-tock, tick-tock. Wouldn’t it be optimal if all perpetrators of harassment, from those making off-hand comments to those committing the most heinous forms of sexual assault, detonated like little alarm clocks with enough advanced notice for all of us to escape their wrath or pre-empt their wickedness? I would love to re-write history, wiring the belts on Harvey Weinstein's bathrobes with a sinister sound effect.
And what wouldn’t I have given on that third performance, Irie punch-drunk and exhausted, vocal chords threadbare but still vibrating, for my daughter to have improvised, taking liberties with J.M. Barrie’s script?
If she’d just raised her sword and looked menacingly into that croc’s slit-shaped pupils, maybe she could have scared him away for good, becoming the un-rivaled king -- queen -- of the open and turbulent seas, fearful of nothing that lurks beneath the surface. We’d re-name this place, calling it Never-Again-Land.