Being Female: An Unwelcome Reminder

Posted by on June 20, 2013 in Commercial Fishing, Culture, Hooked Favorites, Women in Fishing | 33 comments

When the Kathleen Jo pulls out of her stall at noon, I am there to see them off. My five year old shipmate waves wildly through the starboard window. As soon as they turn the corner, I begin the trek to my new home, eager to get settled in a private writing space. Mike’s sailboat lives in the neighboring harbor, the first harbor I called home as a child but have rarely visited since. It’s a panting raven kind of day, corvids parked in the dusty lot with their beaks hanging open, oil-slick feathers radiating heat. I stroll down the main float with sunburned shoulders and a broad smile.

A smile that freezes as two men approach me.

I know these men. Sammy, a golden can of Coors clutched in his hand, worked at a local business until drinking cost him his job. The other is Carl, a man I crewed with a lifetime ago, then re-encountered last summer. A man who’d expected that sex would be part of the package, working with a woman.

Both men move toward me with the ursine lumber of the wasted. Maybe it’s freshly achieved today, maybe it’s the result of lifetime pickling; I can’t tell and it doesn’t matter. Their blurry gazes sharpen.

If you’re a woman reading this, you and I know how to do the same math. With a single sweeping glance, we can measure a sidewalk, dividing width by threat. Where am I? What time of day? Anyone else in sight? The research that says female students test lower in mathematics doesn’t consider our aptitude for equations like this. Painfully practiced, we’re at the top of the class.

Here, though, standard calculations don’t apply. A dock is not a sidewalk. Crossing the street is not an option. The water I usually look upon as a friend is now an oppressor.

This harbor’s wooden walkway is generous. There’s ample room for two people to pass comfortably if both follow the rules of personal space. But this equation involves three people, two of them, one of me, and Carl is not following the rules.

I step to my right, hugging the far side.

Carl steps to his left.

I veer to my left. No. Not that way – don’t put yourself between them. I overcorrect back to the right.

Again, Carl mirrors me.

In another place, using different math, this awkward step-shuffle-step would make me laugh. “Go ahead!” I’d grin, and my accidental dance partner would sweep their arm out, “No, please, you!” Here, I am not laughing. Here, Carl stands before me, blocking my path.

His voice is raspy, words spilling quick and loud. He asks if I know Sammy. “I been telling him how I worked with you when you were just 20 – goddamn, that was 15 years ago! – and I gotta tell ya, Tele, I do a lot of crazy shit, but I never meant to disrespect you. You know, like when I got you that T-shirt from Rosie’s?”

An Alaskan legend, Rose’s Bar sells clothes emblazoned with her red-hot ink urging, “Take Your Pants Off… Let’s Have a Party!”

My words step out slow, several pitches lower than usual and balanced on the center of my tongue; they are careful not to rock this boat. I tell Carl no worries, dude, I don’t even remember, and it’s true. I don’t remember anything about that season, other than how it ended.

Sammy tugs Carl’s arm. “C’mon, man, let’s go. Let her walk.”

I wonder if Sammy is perhaps not as drunk as I’d thought. I wonder how far I can count on him, a man so slightly built he could practically fit in the pocket of Carl’s Hawaiian shirt. I wonder why I’m looking to a man for an ally.

Carl shakes loose. “Nah, man, I’m talkin’ to her! I got important things to say.”

His eyes are overly intent on mine, shining too bright, as he admires my tattoos and claps my shoulder. Skin, burning skin. I will myself to become part of the dock’s weathered wood, to hold his gaze, hold my center. To not flinch.

Sammy prods Carl again. In his distraction, there opens a window. I move around him, circling wide as the dock allows.

The cool dismissal tossed over my shoulder is remarkable in its nonchalance, but a new self-consciousness pilots my feet. Approaching the sailboat that had been such cause for excitement, all I see now is its isolation. I take care to memorize the stall number. I make a show of knocking on the hull, pausing for an imagined invitation to come aboard. I open the door with warm chatter, as if my friend is waiting inside, not headed out on his first longline trip. Not gone for the next six days.

Stop it, sweetie – don’t go down that road. Don’t feed your energy into those scenarios.

I am suddenly very aware that there isn’t a good way to lock the sailboat from the inside.

*****

On my last trip on the Kathleen Jo, we caught 4000 pounds of halibut one day. Jeff mock-complained that he and his male deckhand had once put in a 9000 pound day. I teased him over our rockfish tacos. “Sorry we didn’t get more, Jefe. Must be my vagina.” He ducked his head, blushing bright. The next day, struggling to heave a 75 pound halibut onto the hatch, I cursed, “Dammit – if only I had a penis!” His wife and I delighted in teaming up on our captain, who wished he’d never said a word.

With these friends to whom I have nothing to prove, gender shrank to a joke we lobbed across the deck. Beyond our 53-foot sanctuary, it swelled into a grenade.

Tick tick tick… The captain whose black cod I helped unload, observing, “You’re sure pretty for this kinda work.”

Tick tick tick… The man on the VHF radio snarling that another fisherman had yelled at him on the drag. His outrage wasn’t over the exchange itself, but that it’d been “by a fuckin’ woman!”

BOOM. The commercial fishermen slapping bumper stickers on pick-ups, vowing that they’d rather have a daughter in a whorehouse than a son on a charter boat.

Dodging the shrapnel of encounters like these, I wonder how a person can find her greatest love and truest identity in a world that consistently says she doesn’t belong. How can I saunter these docks with more confidence, more certainty in who I am and my authority to be here, than anywhere else I’ve known?

Gender doesn’t matter here. That’s the party line. Men and women alike insist, “It’s about whoever can do the work.” Growing up fishing, it was easy to internalize that refrain – even when I knew better. The value of all things – all people – existed in their relationship to masculinity.

At 21, I crewed for a captain who, in more than 30 years at sea, had hired one other female deckhand. When I peeked into his logbook at the end of our first day, blue scrawl assured me I was “a fine hand, as good as or better than any man.”

Male was the yardstick, and I was determined to measure up. I drank the Kool-Aid: disparaging femininity, mimicking masculinity, unconsciously promoting the toxic thinking that constructed these binaries in the first place. Believing that “one of the guys” was the best me that I could hope to be.

Of course that was a lie. But it was a lie I inhabited enough for my own conviction. Even if the surrounding fishermen knew better, they allowed the illusion. Theirs was a gift of omission, wrapped in affection.

Carl shattered that illusion when I saw myself as he saw me: not as a crewmate, but an obligatory sex partner. Fifteen years later, he’d done it again. In cornering me on the dock, Carl effectively cracked that measuring stick over his knee and tossed it into the drink. He forced me to remember that in a culture where gender, power, and violence are all connected, even the strongest fisherman’s vulnerability is never as distant as she’d like to imagine.

*****

Stepping off Mike’s sailboat and calling goodbye to the no one inside, I skulk back up the dock. The sun still shines. In the parking lot, the ravens still sit with their beaks agape. As if they can’t believe what they’ve seen. As if they don’t recognize me.

I feel the same way.

 

 

33 Comments

  1. Ah sweetie, that sucks. My heart hurts for you. For all of us, actually. For you, for me, for my daughters. That we have to be on alert all the time is so many kinds of wrong. That we can’t expect to saunter the docks or the sidewalks free of assault angers me. That we are reduced to making shit up to keep ourselves safe–goddammit.

    Know that I’m thinking about you and sending positive thoughts your way. Thanks for sharing your experience because what does help is to know we are not alone in our fears.

  2. Tele:

    Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit. I remember my teaching days when a student would turn in something like this. I’m supposed to comment on the writing, but the content is so powerful I can’t. Yes, you told it well. I felt your fear, was riveted on that dock with you, and now anticipate a sleepless night…or several. You obviously know this game well. Drunks don’t have lines. I understand the desire to not give in to your fears, but I’m thinking safety first. Safety. First. Be safe.

  3. My only wish is that this was simply fiction at its best. Even in my sixties similar incidents and feelings are occasionally experienced. Hard to believe, but true. The fear. The revulsion. The anger. Stay strong, Tele.

  4. Dear Tele,

    Bummer. Remember, you held your center. There are the Joels and there are other kinds of men in this world. We need to remember who’s who. Continue to make good choices. I’m proud of you.

  5. Wrapped in that incredible, ineffably moving writing was an experience that indeed any woman can relate to so viscerally.

    With my daughter graduating from high school in a few days I’m particularly aware of how many times she too will have to navigate through such moments and often wonder how, if at all, I can prepare her.

    You do belong. Weave your way through them safely.

  6. Wow T.. This brought tears to my eyes thinking of past male atrocities and how far we’ve come in the day to day visual world but these little pokes that remain of a seedy underbelly in our culture. You are strong. Stay safe. Catch many fish and perhaps a lost bracelet even!

  7. Oh, Tele –

    Your writing is, as ever, powerful and evocative. This experience was clearly awful, and it shook you.

    I’m sorry that it happened to you, more sorry that we live in a world where some men believe that it is OK to behave that way.

    I encounter the same attitude, all the time. I have been offered jobs by captains who obviously believed that sex would of course be part of the package, and they seemed surprised that I would not, even for a moment, consider such an offer.

    And I hate it that some drunken bastard can corner you on a dock and send the wind up your back like that. But it sounds like you handled it about as well as any of us could in that situation.

    Huge respect, Tele. And warm thoughts for a better day.

  8. I hope they didn’t spoil your private writing space for you. Remember the fences of self-defense. With your psychological and verbal fences, you can keep those dudes far away from
    your physical fence. Like Rob tells his self-defense classes, men may be “stronger,” but women are smarter!

  9. Happy Solstice Tele……….Chin up, head held high, shoulder’s back. Just keep walking forward. Enjoy your days with Joel. Be Well….Peace.

  10. This is the most honest, powerful piece of writing I’ve encountered all month, Tele. It’s one thing to deal with the challenges that all humans face on the water – weather, catch, safe passage – but it’s absolute bullshit to have to factor in sexual harassment as well. You do belong – the fishing community is yours, and it is your home. It’s time for Carl et al. to recognize this. There isn’t much more that I can add to the advice already given by the powerful women voices who have posted before me, but I can’t help but think about my high school students, especially young women, who are out working their various Southeast AK jobs for the summer and I hope they don’t have to contend with a Carl.

    Is this an entry I may share on my Facebook page – and the Facebook page for Alaska Women Speak?

    Stay strong – be safe –

  11. Alarming experience, but you handled it beautifully. You’re a strong and impressive woman, walking straight through your fear and out the other side. I think of my own daughter, about to move to FBX to start her career as a surgeon. I believe she’s the only female in that role and am worried about the challenges she’ll have to face. Hopefully, she will develop some effective strategies, as much as one can, like you. Thanks for sharing this personal story.

  12. Dammit, Tele, that sucks. Sending you warm and light-filled thoughts.

  13. Powerful words, Tele.
    I think you’re right – AK can be both the least and most equal of terrain.

  14. Tele, your writing is moving, powerful, and primal in the way it hits one’s gut. Reading this makes me want so badly to kick someone’s sorry, drunken ass. And I am sure that there would be a lot of guys waiting in line behind me to do the same.

    Keep writing and be strong, be safe.

    • AMEN JOE!!

  15. Sigh. And hug. And …god, it gets exhausting, doesn’t it? But with a pen (or a keyboard) all truths can be told. And you know how to tell ’em. Be safe, Sweetie! I miss you, and at the moment, I’d much rather that you were here than there.

  16. Hugs Tele, at least when I worked on the oil rigs there was no alcohol allowed in the camps — what an awful awful thing to happen — quick thinking at the boat as far as “occupants”. Be safe : ))

  17. I, too, look over my shoulder, in my rear view mirror, and keep my car clean inside to remove clues about my life. It’s been thirteen years, and I remember that when I learned that other women have gone through the same thing, somehow it made me stronger. Now, whatever doesn’t kill me better start running. (I didn’t make that up, but I like it) You are stronger today than you were yesterday. Hugs!

  18. Tele,
    Profound. And as per usual, chills at the ending lines.
    I’ve seen that bumper sticker. I loathe that bumper sticker. It makes me feel the kind of anger that I am ashamed of feeling.

    On a semi-related note: My friend, after seeing the same truck twice with this offensive bumper sticker in her downtown Seattle neighborhood, said to the driver ” ‘Dodge the fathers, Ram the daughters’ Really?!” She said the guy turned red, looked ashamed, and mumbled “sorry”.

    On a less related note: Have you ever seen a particular bumper sticker that is a silhouette of a moose head with antlers? I think it represents a brand of snow mobiles or hunting equipment, I’m not really sure. But every time I see it, which is usually on very powerful looking trucks, I can not get over how much it looks like a woman’s reproductive organs (seriously, fallopian tubes, labia, very anatomical) I’ve fantasized about passing by someone with the bumper sticker and yelling out “Hey, I like your uterus sticker!”

  19. Powerful, and sad and shaking in front my computer’ I’m sorry that you go through that shit..

  20. Tele – I for one look forward to running into you on the dock. Even though we’ve just met I am already happier for it. I’m new to this game and know the road’s been paved by amazing rule-breaking women like you for which I am thankful, probably more than I know. Another great post, thanks so much for your honest voice.

  21. Your post leaves me breathless, touched me to the core, recognition of a situation most of us don’t even think about any more because we just deal, right? I was a wildland firefighter during my first career and felt what you describe, even though I was “just as good”. Sometimes I felt like I was even better because I had fewer excuses, complaints. I just put down my head an worked. However, if I made a mistake it was because of my gender. If a male counter part made a mistake it was just him. He was a bozo (or insert some other descriptive word). It definitely wasn’t his gender. That was inequality I fail to understand or even accept. Some things haven’t changed. My profession has but not because of that. Most firefighters, male or female, seem to move on after a few years or after nearly a decade like I did. Now I’m in a field where gender doesn’t matter but still encounters on the sidewalk when you’re outnumbered matter. Brava to you for putting down these words.

  22. A beautiful piece sweetie, just as riveting as the day you told me the story over the phone. I could hear the fear in your voice and I wondered to myself, as men, why are we so afraid to talk about gender and power? Why whenever I post something about rape culture, feminism, or sexism is it met with the sound of cricket? A few women may like the post and comment on it, but the men are silent. I don’t care if the conversations make you (men) uncomfortable, this affects all of us and we need to not steer around issues just because they make us uncomfortable. So if your in a group of guys that start saying inflammatory or degrading things about women, say something, our complacency just furthers the acceptance of this kind of behavior as a societal norm, and its not ok. I have been surprised when I have spoken up in groups where I was definitely a little scared to voice my opinions how quickly people are to change their tone when they are challenged or shamed. Thank you so much for this piece, I have been thinking about these kind of things a lot lately and this piece is so raw, so personal and so powerful it has helped open the doors further. And men lets start talking to each other about how we can be better allies and if you see or hear someone acting inappropriately, don’t be afraid, don’t be silent. So glad to have you home safe and sound my love.

  23. Tele – This was indeed a powerful piece of writing as you are so skilled at doing. I truly echo your partner Joel’s response regarding those of us who are of the X-Y chromosome construction. If we, as men, really want to make a difference in this pervasive behavior, then tactful and immediate measures must be taken. It doesn’t mean knocking teeth in or cussing hard enough to descale a rusty hulk, it is simply letting our same gender know that this way of thinking is not acceptable nor right. To laugh or chuckle along with it or just feel it is not our place to speak out to this is not right and only fuels this behavior.

    In the ideal world, it would be great for the “Carls” out there to have the tides turned on them in some way, to feel what they inflict on women. In the real world, it won’t happen. He and countless other males will continue to look, view and treat women in ways that are not acceptable. There is no easy answer but one thing is for sure, complacency makes it so much worse. I’d rather get in a scrap and take damage than to let this kind of crap slide.

    What I can say Tele is that there are the “Joel’s” out there, we are many and we are gaining ground. It don’t matter height or weight, many of my gender truly view women as an absolute equal on all things in life. The true measure of a real man is how he treats and respects others, be it men or women. The “Carls” of this world will ultimately lose because they simply don’t get it and are incapable in mind to do so. It does brings sadness and anger that in this day in age, that you and other women must constantly have their radar dialed for encounters such as this. Be strong, be vigilant and let us all watch each others back.

    On an end note, guys – if you know a “Carl” or this particular Carl, do this world a favor and give him a beer or pint of hard stuff with a scant 1/4 tsp of Joy or Dawn dish soap added to it. It is a worthy investment and despite our best efforts, won’t kill him – honestly. It will however “grease the skids” as they say and keep his sorry ass anchored to a bucket instead of trolling the docks. Peace, safety and good fishing to you all.

  24. tele I think carl is something you have to conquer in yourself; men are not all evil creatures; for every bad one there are many hundreds of good men; maybe down at the wharf there are a few wharf rats; when I started to read all your old blogs after reading the since then I have reread them many times; I have really never known much about feminisn so I have tried to learn a little more about it; I am sorry to say with little results;but not from not trying. having skippered a longliner for a few years I know a little about work! for one deckhand 4000 lbs of halies is a good day for anyone with the bycatch that I assume goes with it; for 10 or 12 it will take the skipper to work more than he will like; I am sure jeff knows this also and meant no slight to you or your gender; you do woman proud tele! in my younger days I crossed the boardwalk to avoid the odd clump of girls to; I was just to shy to face them down; TOM

  25. Tele, I am glad you got away safely, my heartbeat was up reading your dangerous encounter, so strongly and evocatively told with no barriers to your feelings. And you coped with it like a chess champion, never losing your inner strengths and composure, what a girl. And I congratulate you on having Joel, his comment reveals he is a very much emacipated man and human being and almost as well spoken as you are.

    Thinking on your encounter….why are men brutal to women? Why do they tend to think of us as accessories rather than equals of a different persuasion? Why do men resent Women today in this era of equality?

    Firstly I think it goes back to the first few thousand years, when He went out to get the meat and chase away competitors, be it human male or hungry sabretooth, while She bore and clothed the babies and cooked dinner and sewed his moccasions and chewed the hides to drape softly over the tent pegs. I think this role-play is still part of the male psyche, just as compassion, nurturing, wisdom perhaps, reflection, and encompassing love for life are primarily the domains of Woman. Mars/ Venus. The burning Sun of day and the reflective seductive Moon of the night that lifts the tides of the world. I think in the nature of things, Woman’s role is to be supportive, rather than competitive in her relationship with men. Each have their inborn strengths that are different.

    Yet today, Woman has invaded every corner of the Male domain, even to the point his occupation is taken over, and this reflects badly on his self esteem. And why not? He is born to protect and support his family, yet here he is sidelined by women as competent in his field as he is, and he feels unnecessary. Sometimes I dont blame male resentment of women these days, who (at least on tv) tend to cock snooks as if men were irrevelant. On TV this is the message– and teenage girls will be lapping it up. Nevertheless, the equality of occupational privilge that women enjoy today should not spark the brutal senseless assaults that happen to women and children, and in this Men have no competitor on earth in cruelty and selfishness. And I would not be surprised if it were fostered by the pornographic, murderous, selfish and sexually titillating garbage saturating TV and print media these days. It does nothing to stop violencea and everything to promote it, with women displayed as playthings bereft of principles and womanly virtues. Men, take back your violence! Women, spare men the humiliation of feeling irrelevant!

    • @Mary Russell:

      And how are we to ‘spare them the humiliation of feeling irrelevant?’ Are we to avoid following our own dreams simply because they put us in competition with men? Are we to practice only the ‘womanly virtues’ (whatever that means; I’ m sure I don’t know)?

      All I ask is equal opportunity and the chance to earn equal pay and equal respect. The reality, too often, is that women don’t get these things, and we have to fight for our ground and defend it.

      If a man feels irrelevant because I am good at my job, if he feels some need to protect me and cannot handle the fact that I do not require his protection, that is on him, not on me. I cannot be held responsible for someone else’s feelings.

      It does not, under any circumstances, ever, give him the right to attempt to intimidate nor harm me.

      • Cant complain on what you’ve said Lynn, maybe I’m up the creek with my take on the role of women being subject to consideration of the nature of the male psyche….

    • I’m thinking…go berserk (into battle without your chest plate armor) like a Viking. There is nothing to fear but fear itself. It’s a good day to die works too. Still, I have been afraid of the dark and camping alone when a car load of men in the middle of nowhere showed up. I was glad I had my little 38 special in my tent but really had a hard time picturing a stand off. Anyway they didn’t bother me or know I was alone in there. No question there is a lot to fear but I still think many men fear intimacy and relationships the way women might fear rape, so everyone’s got their demons. Maybe that’s not it, maybe they fear the fiercer warrior or being shown up by someone. Well, you can’t get out of life without walking right into it, I say bring it on.

  26. Tele, When I read of such encounters, I don’t have to know the woman for my disgust at these men to overwhelm me. But when such things happen to women I know, I feel a sense of helpless outrage. I want to find the magic words that all such idiots can understand, words that will get them to leave women alone, words that will make them stop equating proximity with availability. I am very happy that you are physically unharmed, but I mourn any lingering emotional distress. Thank you for writing the tale, because people need the perspective you brought to it.

  27. Tele-powerfully written, tears roll down my cheek! Way to stay strong. Your inspirational. Xoxo miss you

  28. Tele … little sister. Softly, gently now – you are amongst friends. You are safe. You are also one of my heroes. What your husband wrote turned on the tears. Eric’s words chimed in and Tom is working hard to understand. Such bravery! What you experienced… This has happened to me on the docks too (and it gives me pause when I contemplate sending my daughter fishing). The last incident I recall happend in La Push over 16 years ago and I remember it like yesterday. Al was finishing up with fish tickets and I had wandered back to the boat alone. Two men. Sammy and Carl’s of the world. I managed to get on board and locked the door. Al got back and even in his presence the men were harrassing. They eventually moved off but were back and wanted us to move our boat the next morning. Their aggression was such that we left port – immediately. During a gale warning. As we left, the look of disbelief on both of their faces was priceless. We saw Their fear – which was there all along and I realized that it was this cowardliness that drove their despicable behavior. We anchored behind Destruction Island and it was a most uncomfortable day and night on the pick. To me, it was infinitely safer. Joel is right. We, all of us, need to break the silence and change our world. Tele, my friend, you already are!

  29. Wow. What an extraordinary, strong piece of work. Your writing, and your finding your way, including through this situation. A friend suggested that I might like to read your blog, and I just started looking at it this evening, and came upon this piece. My friend was so right. I don’t fish, but I sail a small boat, sometimes for long distances, by myself. Sometimes the fear of this kind of thing shakes me, but so far, so good. My boat doesn’t lock…
    Thank you so much for your writing, and for creating, and sharing, a space where so many strong individuals join that conversation. That the world has such harsh places is so hard – but that it has this kind of caring, expressed so well, from so many connected friends, makes one think that it can be okay after all.
    Sending hugs, though we haven’t met.
    Shemaya