Identity

The first scene of my book involves a woman at a bar. She doesn’t know most of the other people there, and for various reasons she has to stick around for a while. Although the others there don’t all know each other, it seems to her that they are all comfortable in this place, all falling into conversation and interaction and fun with ease. She can talk to people, and laugh, and act like she fits in; but inside she feels alien, out of place. She is coping as best she can, running down the clock until she can leave.

I think of this as one of the universal experiences of being human. I suspect everyone, no matter how confident or extroverted, has been in a social situation where they feel desperately out of place. And that’s the irony of such situations: no matter how much you feel like you’re the only one who wonders what all of these people know that you don’t, who is certain that they are all looking at you wondering “Wow, what’s she doing here?”, it’s a near certainty that you’re not the only person in the room who feels that way. You may not even be in the minority.

And knowing that…doesn’t really help.

I was the alien in the room for two days this weekend when I attended Readercon. The whole experience was both familiar and strange. The conference was populated by the sort of people with whom I have always felt comfortable: science fiction/fantasy fans, people who seek out what is strange and different. People who read. It wasn’t all young people, either; while I was older than the median age, I was by no means the oldest person there, or even close to it. And everyone I spoke to, from authors to panelists to booksellers, was cheerful and inclusive.

I do this thing when I am in a group of strangers: I mirror them. I watch them interact with each other – when they pause, when they tell jokes, when they interrupt each other – and I fall into that pattern (with varying levels of success). This isn’t conscious, but it’s something I’ve always done. It’s a kind of improv, I think; figure out the context, and run with it. It’s a performance, and the degree to which it presents me as I really am varies widely. I can never be a completely different person at times like this, but my behavior is far more a factor of nerves and what I see around me than my actual personality.

Back at IBM, I once told my boss I was an introvert. She gave me a confident smile and said “I don’t believe you.” Apart from the issue of her reacting like I’d just insulted myself, I wasn’t really surprised. I can, in some situations, be quite social. It isn’t even like I don’t enjoy it much of the time. It just exhausts me. But most of the time, other people don’t know how much effort I’m expending.

With software people, it’s easier. I know the industry pretty well by now, and I know the personalities of the players: the young idealist, the old cynic, the gladhanding manager who doesn’t really want to hear your opinion. Even when I’m doing the mirroring thing, I know where the edges are, what to say and what not to say. I can run on autopilot, to a certain extent, and I can channel some energy into observing other people, figuring out who they are behind their various façades.

Readercon, on the other hand, was disorienting. Some of that had to do with where I am with my own writing, wondering if I’d ever be attending as a published author and not just a reader. But most of it was because it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been around a large group of gregarious strangers who were not software people. All of my introvert instincts might have been completely off-base.

I was nervous. When I am nervous, I talk to much. My husband says nobody else notices, but I sure do. And I try to remember the things I said, the things I shouldn’t have, questions I should have asked, times I should have just shut up.

And I realize, in a situation like this, I have no real idea of who I am.

I know Liz the Coder. I know the kind of image I want to project. I know what sorts of skills I can and cannot offer to a project. I do not know Liz the Author. I know my book, and I know how I write, and what I need to do to clear my head and make myself compose, or edit, or polish to the point that I feel comfortable sending out another draft. But I do not know Liz the Author Who Talks To Other People. I have an agent now. This is a for-real business thing I’m doing. I need to figure this out.

I met my agent in person at Readercon. She was marvelous and upbeat and full of confidence. I am guessing she has dealt with people weirder than I am. I am guessing she has dealt with people who are far more shy. I don’t want to be that person who tries to hide behind her all the time. I want to figure this out. I want to be able to go to Readercon and know who I am, whether or not I’m doing the mirroring thing.

When I first went off to college, I was lucky to have a roommate who was an extrovert and also quite nice. I could follow her into a lot of social situations, and it wasn’t that hard to meet people. But I realized, at one point, that I had no idea who I was without being around the people I had known for years. So much of my behavior and temperament were reflections of them. Who was I without them?

Thirty-two years later, and I still don’t know.

How Would You Feel?

I had posted this last week and then taken it down, because it felt a little like a #firstworldproblems sort of rant. And in truth, I’m pretty lucky to live where I live, and for the most part I’m happy with my life. 

But I do think that the equality of women is important, and I do think that the first country that grants women genuine equality under the law – whatever country that is – will be important to women all over the world. And I do think that reproductive rights are, quite possibly, the last fight that must be won to make us truly equal under the law. (Apart from, you know, an equal rights amendment to the US constitution, which was shouted down all those years ago by people screeching about unisex bathrooms.)

And I don’t think it will be won in my lifetime. Hence the rather depressing tone of this post.

So yes, there are places that are so much worse than the US that this rant seems churlish; but it does effectively capture how the events of the last week have made me feel.

And to the women around me who say things like “I believe in equality, but feminists are too strident” or “We don’t need feminism anymore – look how equal we are!” I would say: Wake up. The rights you have today can be removed legally and swiftly. And they will be, unless you stop making excuses and start fighting.

Yesterday I watched a TED talk given by George Takei. In it he discusses how it felt to be an American – to believe in American values, and to live by them – when you’re living in an America that doesn’t even want you there. That gave me hope. Whatever our laws say, whatever our society is pushing this week – our ideals are better than that.

So I choose to live the American ideal that I am equal, that I am as much of a citizen as any man, that my civil rights are unalienable, no matter what anyone says.

And with luck, someday the law will catch up.


How would you feel if you woke up one day and realized you were a prisoner?

On some level, of course, you’ve always known it. Since you were a child, you’ve known it. You were raised with the others, and by the others; but your rules were different. Expectations were different. Your behavior needed to be different. The ones who raised you could not always protect you, even when you were small, because you were a prisoner, and prisoners were just a little less human, just a little less worthy of respect and consideration. Most of the others were kind, if you were one of the lucky ones; but if you ran into one who wasn’t, you had to be careful what you said. Because maybe it was you who made them unkind. The fact that you were a prisoner to begin with – that provoked unkindness in some of them. If you got hurt, it’s because you were what you were, and it’s to be expected. Learn to live with it, because that’s your lot.

The others have always given you a certian amount of leeway. This changes, of course, depending on which of them are in power; but if it makes their lives smoother and easier, they give you what feels like freedom. Sometimes it’s nice; sometimes you forget that you’re a prisoner, that you’re different, that you are not quite as human as they are. You can feel free, and creative, and hopeful.

And some of the others genuinely want you to be free. Their treatment of you is sincere. They do see you as human; they do see you as worthy, as the same. They don’t believe you deserve to be hurt because you are a prisoner. They think the others who claim that it is in their nature to be unkind to prisoners are the ones who are less than human. They think you should be free.

But not enough of them. Never quite enough of them.

You have a lot of freedom. You have choices. You have a nice life; you are happy most of the time. Your struggles seem like the struggles of the others. You look around at other countries in the world, and you see how their prisoners are treated, and you feel sorry for them. Because you don’t live in a country like that. You live in a country where there are no prisoners, where we’re all human, all free.

Except you don’t. And one day, you wake up, and you stare it right in the eye.

You are free until they say you are not. You have rights until they say you do not. You are judged by how they want to use you. You are scapegoat and cause and immorality and gatekeeper and the root of all evil and wrapped in cotton as if you are made of glass.

All of your freedom is illusion. The child you have, who you love beyond reason – her freedom is illusion as well. She may have more than you. She may have less, if some of the others have their way. But she will not be free. None of you will be free, because you are prisoners. A gilded cage is still a cage. You can ask, and persuade, and yell and scream, but it’s not your choice. It’s their choice, and they can take away anything you are given in the blink of an eye.

How would you feel, if you woke up one day and all this came crashing down on you, all at once? Everything you’ve known all your life, stark in black and white?

I will tell you how you would feel: tired. You would be tired, and sad.

But you would still fight to be free.