Experience is an award-winning magazine that tells stories about the intersection of technology and humanity — stories that look to the future; chronicle innovations in work, play, and human relationships; and examine solutions to global problems. In addition to our website, we publish a print issue three times annually. Single copies can be purchased here.
To survive meetings, I used digital distractions — until I found the ultimate analog cure
By Alexandra Samuel
“Alex, what do you think?”
I looked up, startled, and surveyed the men who were staring at me expectantly. Once again, I was That Person: The fidgeter, too restless to sit still at an all-day business meeting. The distracter, disrupting my colleagues’ focus with my own relentless need for multitasking. The lone woman in a boardroom full of men. Which is why I suddenly felt acutely conscious of the distraction in my lap: a ball of yarn, two knitting needles, and a half-knitted scarf.
Thankfully, I have a lot of practice bringing unwelcome distractions to the conference table. I was the first person in college to carry a “portable” computer to class — a 20-pound Zenith Supersport that practically dislocated my shoulder with its weight. A decade later, I carried a much lighter Mac Powerbook to grad school seminars and professional conferences, where I found that the clicking of the keyboard was enough to earn me the side eye.
Maybe that should have taught me to be careful about what to carry into the sanctuary of a conference or meeting room, but as I built my career in technology research and development, my early adopter compulsion — not to mention my twitchiness — made me a chronic, unwelcome trailblazer. Before the iPhone was a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye, I had a Treo, an early smartphone that allowed me to check email during meetings, at a time when that was still considered the height of discourtesy. Before smartphones became ubiquitous, I drew glares by live tweeting workshops and creeped people out by coming to meetings with my trial version of Google Glass. When the backlash began, and managers started running device-free meetings, I not only insisted on retaining my laptop habit — I made fun of my colleagues for taking notes on paper.
Over all those years of tech-enabled multitasking, I braved collegial resentment in the name of productivity, and risked professional alienation in order to avoid the ultimate nightmare — having to give a meeting my full and undivided attention. A 30-minute client meeting with genuine back-and-forth: that I could handle. An hour-long Powerpoint presentation was tolerable, if useless. A half-day workshop, where participants were asked to leave their devices behind so we could engage in “meaningful presence”? It’s time to amend the Geneva Convention, because that is torture.
I was so incapable of mono-tasking that I needed to play puzzle games while watching TV. That’s when I decided to take up a more productive hobby: knitting.
While I grew steadily more dependent on digital distraction, the rest of the world started to poke holes in the very idea of multitasking. “Multitasking is counterproductive,” a 2001 headline blared, reporting on an early study that showed the cognitive cost of alternating tasks. It was an early harbinger of what would become a torrent of research and media coverage, aimed at shattering the delusion that we can check incoming tweets or emails without compromising the quality of our offline attention. A Time feature told me that “[f]or nearly all people, in nearly all situations, multitasking is impossible.” Entrepreneur magazine put a price tag on the problem, recently claiming that the “global cost of multitasking was $450 billion per year from lost productivity.” One widely circulated study — soon debunked — claimed that the internet itself had shortened my attention span to that of a goldfish.
Whatever animal I resembled, I still had a problem: my attention span was insufficient to the job of keeping me engrossed in a hour-long meeting about the relative merits of weekly vs daily email marketing campaigns. Even after-hours, I was so incapable of mono-tasking that I needed to play puzzle games to keep myself from getting restless while watching TV. When I realized I was wasting hours a day on Words with Friends or Threes, I decided it was time to take up a more productive hobby: knitting.
I’ve always been a little bit crafty, as long as I stick to crafts that don’t require much in the way of artistic ability or eye-hand coordination. And I liked the idea of being able to knit my own laptop case, or a pair of smartphone-friendly mittens, or maybe even a Tetris scarf. Heck, if I got really good, I might even knit things that were entirely unrelated to technology!
I was a little daunted by the memory of past failures. I’d tried knitting intermittently over the years, beginning at age 13 and throughout my 20s and 30s; I’d never made it further than a few misshapen rows before I gave up in discouragement. But something exciting had happened in the intervening years: the internet! Between YouTube videos, blog post tutorials, and online knitting communities, I now had all the guidance I needed to get underway, and to get past each successive stumbling block.
At first, knitting was strictly an at-home activity: something to keep my hands busy while I watched TV, too messy and analog for me to consider practicing in public. As my stitches evened out and my technique grew more intuitive, however, I began to flaunt my yarn in low-risk environments. I carried a discreet knitting bag to the coffee shop where I do most of my writing, and discovered that tackling a row or two was the perfect way to reboot my brain whenever I felt blocked. I sought out simple patterns I could handle in the dark, and added knitting to the guilty pleasure of superhero movies. I carried a few hefty skeins onto a transcontinental flight, and discovered that a plane travels much more quickly from coast to coast if you use the time to knit an entire scarf.
But I was still shy about producing my yarn and needles in the very settings where I needed them most: the conferences, workshops, and client meetings that left me squirming if I put away my smartphone. Knitting in Serious Business Settings felt like a needless provocation, even for me — and a particular risk, given the challenges of being a woman in the corporate world. Staring at your smartphone is a universal activity; knitting, by contrast, is profoundly gendered. Its very suitability for multitasking is wrapped up in traditional roles: in her article, “Knitting as Dissent,” fashion writer and lecturer Tove Hermanson wrote that “knitting has always been women’s work because it was an activity compatible with breastfeeding and childcare in that it could be interrupted and resumed easily.”
Then I found myself at a conference on — of all things — the perils of digital distraction. Tweeting my way through that (or even thumbing through my smartphone, as I do in most meetings) felt like an even more conspicuous deviation. But mono-tasking felt like an impossibility. So I took a deep breath, reached into my bag, and produced my work in progress. Some of my fellow conference-goers gave my knitting a few curious glances, but what were they going to say? It was a conversation about the perils of digital distraction, not analog crafting.
The experience was a watershed. For the first time in years, I was able to absorb talk after talk, and presentation after presentation — even if I wasn’t taking notes or tweeting the proceedings. I was able to sit still(ish), lulled by the rhythm of my own needles. I even went hours without looking at my phone, because the combination of manual activity and intellectual absorption kept me fully engaged.
Everything I read about knitting, meanwhile, bolstered my belief that I had finally found a healthy form of multitasking. If headlines warned of shrinking attention spans in the digital age, a study of older people at risk for dementia found that knitting actually reduced the risks of cognitive decline. A survey of more than 3,500 knitters found that knitting actually made people feel calm, giving me some hope that I might eventually become the kind of person who can just sit still for the length of a meeting. And a study of a knitting guild in my own backyard revealed that many knitters see their hobby “as a means to focus in meetings, during conversations, or while listening to music or watching TV.”
Knitting is undergoing a resurgence right now, which has come with an effort to modernize the craft’s old-fashioned image, and shed some cultural baggage. Sociologist Corey D. Fields has noted that younger women are repositioning knitting as a way to counteract “the overwhelming influence of technology and abstraction in their work lives.” To counter the (misleading) depiction of knitting as the domain of white women, the #diverseknitty movement has drawn attention to the work of women of color and to questions of inclusion in the fiber arts community.
Get experience in your inbox
With the confidence that comes from finding validation — political and even academic — for something you enjoy, I grew bolder about knitting in the kinds of work situations that formerly drove me into the arms of my iPhone. I’ve knit my way through interminable conference calls, trusting that the caliber of my participation will justify the moments when my knitting drifts in view of the webcam. I’ve knit during conversations with potential colleagues, more focused than if I were sneaking glances at my phone. I’ve carried my needles to speaking gigs, and once got into the zone by working on a set of hand-knit Spock ears until it was time to take the stage. As long as there has been anyone in the room looking at a phone or laptop, I’ve felt justified in producing my knitting.
Still, a boardroom felt like a final frontier. At a recent meeting of a nonprofit board I’ve served on for the past three years, it was disconcerting to look up from my neat, colorful stitches and notice a ring of men watching me engage in a retro, analog activity when I’d been invited onto the board for my digital expertise. I felt a familiar flush of shame. Then I looked up once more at the actual men in my meeting. They were activists and operatives; men of color and gay men; men with experience as leaders, and men familiar with the experience of being the lone outlier in a crowded room. They weren’t looking at my knitting, or even looking at me. They were looking to me, because they sincerely wanted my perspective. And thanks to my full attention, I knew exactly what to say.
Alexandra Samuel is a data journalist and technology consultant based in Vancouver.
In Afro-Latin dance, men lead and women follow. But some dancers are changing the rules.
By Cori Brosnahan
One March night, in a nondescript Boston building that houses a bank, a daycare, and a beauty salon, lovers of Latin dance gathered for a monthly social. Under twinkle lights, they stepped and spun to salsa, bachata, and zouk, moving between friends and strangers.
After a few hours, a performance team strutted
onto the floor for a zouk show: four traditional couples, in male-female pairs.
began — and the couples switched partners; now men danced with men and women
danced with women. The crowd went wild.
Afro-Latin partner dances, as the hyphen suggests, come from a merging of cultures in the colonial Caribbean. African percussion and body movement combined with Spanish guitar and French partner dancing to create dances like danzón and rumba, and eventually mambo, salsa, bachata, and more. Irresistible and addictive, Latin dance would spread around the globe, becoming the international phenomenon it is today. Still, one thing pretty much stayed the same: The leader, who initiated the movements, was a man. The follower, who responded to his suggestions, was a woman.
Now that seems to be changing. Cities like Boston are on the edge of a movement, led by the queer community, to transform a traditional, highly gendered art form into something that reflects the world today. There are more and more same-sex couples at social dances. There are more men following and more women leading, including people who don’t identify as queer.
I started dancing bachata a year ago at Havana
Club, a lively Caribbean outpost behind an anonymous door in Cambridge. As a
straight woman, I was surprised and delighted one night when a woman asked me
to dance — even more so when she turned out to be an excellent leader. The more
I danced, the more I noticed the number of people who switched between leading
and following — some queer, some straight, some I had no idea. I admired their
skill the same way I admire people who are bilingual.
Partner dance tends to be oversexualized in
the U.S., but in essence, it’s about connection. At its best, a dance is
wordless conversation, intimate, playful, and tender. As a follower, I still
danced mostly with men, and it occurred to me that I was missing out on a
connection with half the population there. I also began to wonder about another
missing connection: I don’t always follow in life, so why should I only follow
on the dance floor?
People who have been on the Latin dance scene
for decades point out that same-gender dancing is not entirely new. People have
danced salsa at gay night clubs forever. Dance instructors usually learn both
parts in order to teach them. And there have been individual stars who crossed
the gender line and found fame on the other side. Seaon “Stylist” Bristol, a
gay man from Guiana, became an international salsa sensation in the late 1990s,
dancing as a follower. Eli Torres and Yen Dorado were two men whose
electrifying performance won the prestigious Mayan Professional
Salsa Competition in 2009.
Dance classes often
start with an assumption: ladies to one side, gentlemen to another, the
instructor might say. But what if you are a woman who wants to lead? Or a man
that wants to follow? And what if you don’t identify as a man or a woman?
But talent insulates exceptions, while hiding
the reality faced by newcomers or simply the less skilled. Dance classes often
start with an assumption: ladies to one side, gentlemen to another, the
instructor might say. But what if you are a woman who wants to lead? Or a man
that wants to follow? And what if you don’t identify as a man or a woman?
“I would see a lot of queer couples coming
into dance schools and feeling put off and disconnected,” says Ana Masacote, a
professional salsa dancer and Boston-based teacher who identifies as queer.
Now, she trains her teachers to use the terms “leader” and “follower” instead
of “ladies and gentlemen” — a trend that’s becoming more common, but still
hasn’t fully taken hold.
Others, like Juliet McMains, a dance professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, are rethinking the vocabulary entirely.
“I don’t call it “following” because I think it tends to reinforce a passive identity for the people who do it, which tend to be women,” she says. Instead of followers, McMains uses the term “interpreters.”
As the language shifts, so does the culture it describes — though the change has not been uniform or linear. McMains, the author of the history-of-dance book Spinning Mambo Into Salsa: Caribbean Dance in Global Commerce, believes that mainstream acceptance of same-sex and role reversal dancing is specific to particular locations at distinct moments in time. “It has to do with individuals or small groups of people doing a lot of work in a specific community,” she says.
Tina Cavicchio is one of those people in
Boston. A dancer since childhood, Cavicchio grew up in the ballroom scene,
where her father was a musician. Four years ago, she started dancing bachata at
local clubs, and learned to lead because she wanted to dance with her
“I guess one of us has to do that part,” was
her reasoning. When male dancers broke them up, Cavicchio imagined they weren’t
being homophobic — just assuming that the women were passing time, waiting for
a man to step in. But it still made her mad.
Asking women she didn’t already know to dance was another challenge. When Cavicchio was learning to lead, she went to a dance festival in New Jersey. “I was so upset because so many people said no to me. I was wearing a bowtie and a suit — guys weren’t asking me to dance either. I was like ‘Screw this, I’ll change my outfit and I’ll follow.’ I took off my blazer and put on a different shirt. It was really traumatizing.”
Look up the Spanish word despelote, and you will find a variety of definitions ranging from
“chaos” to “hot mess” to “the total rupture of the rules and order within [a]
dance.” But to Ana Masacote, it means a joyful letting loose, which is why she
decided to name her new LGBTQ Afro-Latin social dance “DespeloteX.”
It was the first event of its kind in Boston — though Masacote had nurtured the idea for a decade, back when she was married to a man. Her own public coming out five years ago coincided with what she saw as a greater openness in the industry in general. YouTube videos of same-sex couples proliferated online and the first queer Latin dance festival happened in the Bay Area. It was, Masacote decided, time for DespeloteX.
On a late-spring Sunday, I headed over to the Hard Rock Café for the party, accompanied by Jose Cuadra, a local dancer and choreographer who helps organize Zouk on the Docks, a group dedicated to growing the Brazilian zouk community in Boston. Cuadra had choreographed the zouk piece that had made such an impression on me. He told me that switching to partners of the same sex had been his student’s idea. The gambit was particularly gratifying for Cuadra, who just five years ago had been on a team that wouldn’t let him dance with another man. He was censored at social dances, too.
“I would brave myself to ask [a guy] to dance,”
he says. “They agreed, I agreed. We’re dancing — and my teammates would break
Other times, he was rejected outright; he has
been refused on the dance floor more times than he can remember. But Cuadra,
who is the gay son of a Managuan police chief, had dealt with worse. He kept
putting himself out there, believing that “there was a higher purpose.” He
thought that people just needed to see it was okay.
Now, it seemed like his efforts — and those of
others in the queer community — were paying off. At DespeloteX, we signed in
and took pictures in front of a rainbow flag with a variety of props.
“It’s like big gay prom,” said the
“The dream,” said Cuadra.
Get experience in your inbox
Cavicchio was there, too, teaching a small
bachata class with another woman before the dance started. There was no “ladies
and gentlemen” here. People continued to filter in, filling up the space. The
music got louder. Another instructor led us through a workshop in Afro-Cuban
movement, the dances of the Orisha gods, who were brought to the Americas by
the Yoruba people in slave ships.
The Orishas have their own rhythms and
movements, practiced by followers of Santeria and salsa dancers alike. There is
Oshun, goddess of love and femininity, who circles her hips and caresses the
bangles that adorn her wrists. There is Chango, god of fire and masculinity,
who wields his axe and brings thunder and lightning down from the sky. Anyone
can learn how to shimmy and chop. Anyone can play any part — and that is what
we did for the rest of the night.
Except I only followed because I still didn’t
know how to lead, which was, by this point, becoming embarrassing. And so, a
few weeks after DespeloteX, I scheduled a bachata lesson with Cavicchio, where
I would lead for the first time.
In the years since she first danced bachata
with her girlfriend, Cavicchio has become a sought-after teacher. (She also
gets asked to dance faster than she can ask anyone.) I met her on the fourth
floor of an MIT building, whose spacious elevator vestibules are frequently
commandeered by dancers. We warmed up by opening our chests. Leading, Cavicchio
explained, doesn’t come from the elbow or the wrist, but from the body. Then we
talked about the eight count, the basic rhythmic structure of bachata, and what
is supposed to happen when.
In position, the hold felt strange, like
looking at the mirror image of a familiar picture. I tried to start with my
right foot, and Cavicchio reminded me that leaders always start with the left.
We practiced right turns, left turns, forward basic, back basic. My arms
snapped back to the follower’s position whenever I turned. I felt responsible
for the dance; when I messed up and stranded Cavicchio without a clear
direction, I apologized in the fumbling way so many leads have apologized to
me. It took all my confidence, but it was exciting to decide what was going to
happen next and initiate it. As the body goes, the mind follows: leading
surfaced an attitude I wanted to take off the dance floor and out into life.
After the lesson, we visited Cavicchio’s friends, two women who were practicing a few floors down. Both of them lead and follow, and they were excited when I told them I had just taken my first leading lesson. “Ask me to dance next time at Havana!” one of them said. I told her I would.
How a shocking murder led to a choice — and a secret community
Pamela is founder of the Facebook group Massachusetts Women Gun Owners.
Based on my job, education, and appearance — I’m a social worker, living in the Massachusetts suburbs — people often assume I’m anti-gun. They feel free to talk disparagingly about gun owners in front of me.
I tell them that most people would be surprised to learn how many of their friends and neighbors quietly own firearms. Including me.
I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. There were no guns in my house. I had uncles who hunted, but I never saw their guns. And I didn’t think about firing a gun myself until I joined the Air Force in 2002.
I was just out of high school, had a strong desire to serve my country, and wanted to travel and figure out what to do with my life. I deployed in 2006 and 2007 to Iraq and Afghanistan, working in Security Forces — also known as Military Police — and was trained on a number of firearms. When I was on active duty, I carried a gun at all times.
When I returned to civilian life, I got a license to carry, but I wasn’t interested in carrying every day. Then someone who lives near me was murdered in the middle of day, while out for a run — sexually assaulted, her body burned. She was minding her own business, not doing anything wrong or dangerous. It made me realize that I’m responsible for my own safety. I can’t rely on anyone else. And even when I think I’m in a safe place, doing routine things, I might not be safe.
I started the Facebook group Massachusetts Women Gun Owners eight days after the murder. Now, it’s a networking group with 803 members, composed of women of all ages, from younger women who are hoping to get their license to carry in the near future to grandmothers. We have women from all different career fields; librarians, real estate agents, teachers, law enforcement officers, hairdressers. We welcome people of any political affiliation. We do not talk politics, at all. But we try to keep our membership anonymous, to protect our families. We don’t want anyone with bad intent to know that we might have expensive guns in our home.
Anti-gun people don’t understand us. We want to be safe, like everybody else. We want our children to be safe. We carry firearms to do that.
The women in our group exchange recommendations, advice, and information about educational events. We talk about safe and effective options for women to carry daily: There are corsets, belly bands, and other holsters made for different locations on your body. Some attach to your bra; some go on your belt.
Now I hold a Massachusetts concealed carry permit and carry a small or mid-sized pistol for self-protection. I know the chances of ever needing to use it are incredibly low, almost non-existent. Carrying it is like having liability insurance. Except that insurance protects your assets. I’m doing this to protect my life.
It’s also to protect my son, who is now one year old. Of course, I’m concerned about his safety with a gun nearby. We keep our firearms locked and stored appropriately.When my gun is out of the safe, I keep it on my person in a holster. If I use a safe holster that covers the trigger, the chance of an accident is essentially zero: A properly functioning firearm can never fire without the trigger being pulled.
If I were wearing my gun and my son went to reach for it, I’d say, ‘No, don’t touch it, it’s not safe,’ and redirect him. As he grows, I’ll continue to talk with him about safety — not just around firearms but also knives, cleaning products, pets, anything potentially dangerous. This, to me, is the key to gun safety: taking precautions, following rules, and talking about the risks.
Of course, I’m disturbed by school shootings and urban violence. Something needs to be done. But what? A ban on guns — even certain types of guns — won’t solve the underlying problems. It’s a kneejerk reaction that prevents us from having meaningful conversations about the real issues, such as lack of parental involvement, teaching of morals, and causal influences that we aren’t aware of. And it would only take guns away from law-abiding people who use them to protect themselves.
I’m open to conversations about reasonable gun laws — though I also know that many of the laws we already have in place aren’t being enforced. I know that people convicted of gun crimes often receive lenient punishments. And I know that peoplewho commit illegal acts often don’t care about laws, background checks, or restrictions. The Gun Owners Action League chronicles this on its Facebook page with the hash tag #MACourtFail.
The problem isn’t the weapons; it’s the people. Knives are the most common method of attack outside the United States. The outcomes are horrible. Huge numbers of people are still injured and killed in single incidents. Someone with intent to harm others will find a way.
This is what I tell my neighbors who assume I’m anti-gun. I try to change their perceptions, give them factual information, and counter any misinformation they may have heard or read. I find that if you don’t push your beliefs on them, it’s helpful. I keep emotions out of it. You can’t overwhelm someone with too much information. They won’t hear it at all and will likely become defensive, in my opinion, if you try to throw too much at them.
Get experience in your inbox
And yet gun owners are often demonized. Anti-gun people don’t understand us. We want to be safe, like everybody else. We want our children to be safe. We carry firearms to do that.
Most of us train regularly. We practice. We follow gun laws. We don’t put ourselves in harm’s way or think we’re somehow safer with a firearm. We avoid dangerous situations more often because we don’t want to fire our weapons.
I’d never want to take someone’s life to protect my own. I do everything I can to avoid confrontation. But if I thought my life was in danger, I would do whatever I needed to do to become safe. Including using my firearm.
A professional singer deconstructs the song. Listen for yourself.
By Debbie Gravitte
In 1980, the year after I made my Broadway debut, I was cast in a Frank Loesser revue. My first reaction was: “Frank Loesser? Who’s Frank Loesser?” Only the guy who wrote “Guys and Dolls” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” — a song I’ve been performing ever since.
My job as a singer is to move you, transport you to a state that you weren’t in when you walked in the door. That’s how I approach “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” When you sing a duet, you have to have a point of view, a seed of an idea about what’s going on between these two people. And this song comes from a place of playfulness and joy. It was literally written to entertain people at parties.
I honestly don’t think the male role is overtly creepy. If I interpreted the song to mean someone is trying to do me harm, or literally keep me from leaving — like, blocking the door — that would be a different song, a song in a minor key. But it isn’t. It’s a song about a game.
When “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written, a woman couldn’t just say, “Let’s do it.” A so-called “good girl” couldn’t say, “I would love to stay here and snuggle up with you.” So the character in the song keeps prevaricating. It’s heavy, heavy flirting. She goes back and forth. You have to put yourself in her position, drop yourself into that moment. Yes, there’s an ambivalence, but that’s because she’s saying, “I really can’t stay, but I want to.”
And I don’t think the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” means, “What drug did you slip in my drink?” Modern events have taught us to be wary about alcohol, parties, and loss of control. But in the 1930s and ’40s, cocktails were pretty new. For me, in that line, the character is literally asking, “Is this gin or is this vodka?”
Still, there’s a little bit of an ick factor. So in front of audiences, I’ve approached “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in different ways. When I sang it with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops in 2009, I suggested we switch roles in the middle, and it turned out pretty great. I think it made the song feel more universal, like a yin-yang: “You’re chasing me, but guess what? I want to chase you now.” I have to say I found the song more palatable that way, and I’ve performed it that way many times since.
Get experience in your inbox
I always feel a sense of responsibility for the messages conveyed in the songs I perform. I’m the messenger. So if I were singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” tomorrow night, I think I would say something beforehand, acknowledging the noise around it.
But the noise doesn’t alter my relationship with the song. And while I value the #MeToo movement and the conversation that’s happening now, the move to put a kibosh on this great song makes me sad. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is so much fun to sing. It’s cleverly written. It’s musically simple. It’s melodic. It makes you want to bounce a little bit — everybody who listens can still feel that, even as the tide has changed.
And it has endured for so long because it captures a real sense of play, which I love and adore. I just sang it with [Broadway veteran] Sal Viviano, who is not my lover, not my husband, not my partner. You project all that stuff on the person you’re singing with, digging down to find that real thing. I don’t care if the man I’m singing with is someone I’ve never met. If there’s chemistry, something is going to burst forth.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is about the joy of that chemistry. In every relationship, there’s play — in the beginning and maybe throughout. That’s what foreplay is. It’s a dance. And that’s what these two characters are doing. When they get to the end of the refrain and sing the line together — “Baby, it’s cold…out….siiiiiide”— it sounds like consent to me. Mutual consent.
As told to Joan Anderman.
Debbie Gravitte is a Tony Award-winning actress and singer.
Gender, pronouns, and the power of the right definition
By Jama Shelton
There was a time, when I was a graduate student in New York in the early 2000s, when I found it difficult to get dressed, especially for “dress up” situations. I would try to find a balance between what would be considered masculine and feminine — like a suit with heels. Or a suit with earrings and a touch of mascara. The suit stayed consistent; the “feminine” expressions varied over time. I never felt fully confident, though, until I stopped feeling the need for some aspect of femininity in my outfits. Wearing a suit, a bowtie, and quirky socks felt more like me.
Everywhere I went, people asked, “Are you a boy or girl?” Or worse. One day I was walking my dog in Brooklyn, a school bus stopped at the light, and a kid screamed out the window, “You need to fix your fucking hair, faggot.”
Another kid yelled at me, then all the kids were screaming. People on the street stopped and looked. The stoplight stayed red for an eternity. I thought, “I’m not going to walk away. I’m not going to say anything because they’re children.” I went home and had an utter breakdown.
And I tried to understand why not knowing someone’s gender could make people so hateful. This school bus full of kids had learned that anger from somewhere. Like me, perhaps, they had been taught that there are two genders, nothing more, and that everyone just is one of those two.
If you don’t know anything else besides the narrow definitions you’ve been given, how do you know what’s missing?
As much as I would like to be more like David Bowie, the truth is that knowing the word ‘androgynous’ didn’t solve anything.
I was born in 1975, and I grew up in a small, super-religious Christian town in Mississippi. When I was 16, I was the class president and the homecoming queen. I knew nothing about gay people or gender identity. I didn’t even understand what it meant to have a crush on a girl in my high school.
Then one night, I was driving home from church in my stepdad’s pickup truck. “Rainbow Connection’ was playing on the radio. There’s a verse about a voice that calls to the sailors: “I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it. It’s something that I’m supposed to be.” And in that moment, I thought, “That’s what I am. I’m gay.”
When I finally came out to my mom, I was 22. She gave me the keys to her car and told me to leave. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone, drove to my girlfriend’s home in Houston, and stayed in Texas for five years in a lesbian bubble. I lived in the gay part of town, worked at a lesbian coffee shop, and was part of the gay art community. When my girlfriend got into art school in New York in 2002, I moved with her.
In New York, outside of my bubble, I started to realize that “lesbian” didn’t describe who I was. I was going to graduate school for social work at the time, working with transgender youth. I attended a transgender conference. That’s where I heard the term “androgynous” and thought, “Oh, that’s what I am. I’m like David Bowie. I’m gender elusive.”
But as much as I would like to be more like David Bowie, the truth is that knowing the word “androgynous” didn’t solve anything. While it accurately described how I felt — a combination of masculine and feminine — it didn’t come with instructions about how to make the world see me and respond to me like I wanted it to. And then I learned about “they” as a pronoun. It was 2010 and I was working at the True Colors Fund, an organization aimed at ending homelessness among LGBT youth. Each week we would go around the room and give our name and a pronoun when we introduced ourselves, and one of the new staff members said they used “they.” I hadn’t heard of this before, but I liked the way it sounded, so I started to say, “You can use ‘she’ or ‘they.’”
Still, I was afraid to use “they” widely. I thought people wouldn’t take me seriously or would think I was only using the term because it was a hip thing to do. It was the Advocate, the LGBT magazine, that forced my hand. They were interviewing me for an article about the True Colors Fund, and they asked me which letter I used — L, G, B, or T — so they could identify me for the story. I said if I had to choose something, it would be T for trans — in a broad, gender-fluid way.
That question forced me to categorize myself: to realize that neither “she” nor “he” feels right. So last year, after I married my wife, I started using “they.” Because it’s me. Nothing else fits.
Humans are smart. We learn new things all the time. When people get married, if they change their last names, we adapt to those new names. Still, some people have a hard time wrapping their heads around “they” as a pronoun to refer to one person. They might say, “That doesn’t make sense! ‘They’ is not singular. It’s grammatically incorrect.” I point out that we have and continue to use “they” as a pronoun when we don’t know someone’s gender. I just did it a few sentences earlier. See, it’s not that hard!
Now, I feel the need to tell everyone about “they” — to be visible, vocal and shameless about who I am, because there are so many people who have never seen an adult like them. I wear a button on my jacket that says “They/Them.” I include my pronouns in my email signature and on my syllabi. When giving lectures or trainings, I always introduce myself with my name and pronouns. This is a process that should be normalized.
Get experience in your inbox
I’ve found that it’s important to have allies, because it may not always be comfortable for me to correct someone, depending on the circumstance. And safety is a real concern for transgender people. At restaurants, if someone comes to our table and calls us “ladies,” sometimes my spouse will have a quick educational conversation with them before we leave. Sometimes I leave a note. I’ve gotten really positive reactions when I’ve returned to a café after leaving a note for the server. If they’ve never had to think about gender or pronouns in this way, how could they know?
I’m 43 now and I know what I am: a transgender non-binary person who uses gender-neutral pronouns. I didn’t have a framework or the language to explain that before. Now I do.
As told to Alix Strauss.
Jama Shelton, MSW, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and the Chief Strategy Officer for the True Colors Fund. They are shown in the photos at top as a child and an adult.
There’s the standard way to do feminism. Or there’s punk rock.
By Joan Anderman
Photos by Gretchen Ertl
Carolyn Zagame doesn’t want to be here, in this scruffy community arts center near the outer edges of Boston. She wanders glassy-eyed past the plastic tubs of earplugs and a banner screaming TEAR THE PATRIARCHY DOWN, her long down coat zipped tight. Normally on a Friday morning she would be puttering at home, chatting on the phone, reading the Bible. But her daughter Ali begged and cajoled for nearly a year, and Zagame finally caved. That’s why, instead of tending to familiar tasks in her small town in Central Massachusetts, Zagame is entering the bubble.
No one quite knows how to talk about the bubble, how to make peace with the idea of it, because bubbles are usually bad news — they stand for swimming in a sea of sameness, fingers in our ears to block out the noise of competing ideas and uncomfortable truths. But the bubble officially known as Ladies Rock Camp is different. To begin with, it’s noisy as fuck, and “fuck,” by far the most popular word here, is generally uttered in unison at high volume to describe the proper response to the status quo. In this bubble, there is no such thing as a bad idea, or a mistake, or even a rule. Uncomfortable truths are received with open hearts and more Cheese Balls than you can imagine. Sounds simple enough. In fact it’s fraught, but then so is rock and roll, which is technically what the campers have signed up for.
Between Friday morning and Sunday night a group of 43 women, no music experience required, will form a band, learn an instrument, write a song, and perform it in front of a packed house at a nightclub. That’s 72 hours from newbie to headliner. On paper it sounds impossible, but it has been done, again and again, for eight years in Boston — twice every spring, including on this chilly weekend in March, when Zagame and her fellow campers file in.
Pretty much every inch of the three-story community center, which bears the fitting name of Spontaneous Celebrations, has been refashioned into a clubhouse/playground/shrine to rock and roll, generally, and female rockers, specifically. The cavernous upper floor, dubbed the Rock Room, is ringed with drum kits and plastered ceiling to floor with photos of female musicians, from Billie Holiday to the Slits to Bjork to Taylor Swift. Every few feet a hand-scrawled genre sign is tacked to the wall: FOLK, METAL, INDIE, RAP, GOTH, GLAM, NEW WAVE, COUNTRY, GARAGE, NOISE, TECHNO, POP, PUNK. Posters in iris-searing shades of pink and yellow have been placed ad hoc; there’s one balancing on the back of a sofa, one stashed against a speaker, another teetering on an easel, beaming out the program’s slogans and mission statements. It’s as if a zine came to life and we are spending the weekend in it.
Campers have signed up for instruction in specific instruments: the guitarists receive their lessons in a light-drenched art studio, while keyboardists use tiny, freezing practice rooms in the basement, reached by descending a steep staircase and body slamming a meat-locker-style door. As far as I can tell, this is the only form of injustice at Ladies Rock Camp. On the ground floor, renamed the Jungle Room for its animal-festooned curtains, someone has hung a heavy plastic sheet to bisect the space, creating the Bass Cave. All three floors are bursting with donated gear, in clusters, stacks, and mounds: dozens of amps, cables, drums, pedals, power strips, microphones, Midi controllers, instruments, picks, sticks, cymbal bags, finger tape — everything the campers and volunteer staff will need for a three-day music intensive.
Except that this isn’t only a music intensive. It might not even primarily be a music intensive. It’s a feminist organization disguised as a music camp. One of its purposes is to raise money for Girls Rock Campaign Boston, a series of summer and after school music programs for teens and tweens. Another is to give women — including trans and gender non-conforming participants — an experience that hinges on risk-taking, rewards self-expression, and rejects the notion of perfection. Not to disparage the well-trod feminist watering holes, the panel discussions and Twitter hashtags and Lean In Circles, but doing something this bold and this public requires a level of badassery — more to the point, instills a level of badassery — that sets Ladies Rock Camp apart. In my long career writing about music, it is perhaps the most punk rock thing I’ve witnessed.
You’re a natural revolutionary just by being female and living in this world. Why? Because guess who made up the rules. That’s Hilken Mancini, the Ladies Rock Camp co-founder and program director, speaking at morning assembly on the first day of camp. We wake up every day, we go to our jobs, feed our kids, walk our dogs, and we don’t really think about it all the time, but we’re punk rock just by being alive. None of this would work without her. She paces the Rock Room, clipboard in hand, words tumbling out by the fistful. Punk isn’t a purple mohawk and ripped fishnets, punk is thinking for yourself. It’s looking at the status quo and going no thanks, I don’t want that, I’m going to do it this way. Picture the silliest combination of clothes you can imagine. Pink tights and gym shorts. Clashing knee socks and a bedazzled fanny pack. That’s what she’s wearing. That’s a really hard thing to do. It’s hard because we have been living it for a very long time, and it’s hard to see in your everyday life that you’re not supposed to look like anything, you’re not supposed to do anything, you’re not supposed to be this thing that they put on you every day.
We know this and we don’t. Rather, we have to learn it again and again. It’s why so many campers and volunteers return year after year. Full disclosure: In early 2016 I received an email from Mancini, whom I knew casually from covering the local music scene as rock critic for the Boston Globe. A band coach for the upcoming session had to drop out at the last minute and they were looking for someone to replace her. She wondered if I was interested and available. It seemed like a joke. I had formed my first band only two years previously, at the age of 56. I was learning to play guitar, figuring out how to write songs, wrestling with stage fright and many of the questions Ladies Rock Camp tries to answer in the loud-as-fuck affirmative: Do I have the right to make noise and be imperfect and be myself?
I also worried that, as a critic, I wouldn’t be able to conjure the unbridled support that is a pillar of the experience. I couldn’t even say that I believed, as one of Mancini’s foundational slogans goes, that every shriek, every chord, is awesome. What if it’s just cheerleading? As it turns out, I am a believer. I know it because I entered the bubble that spring, and the next one and the one after that, where I experienced firsthand the transformational power of conviction.
After Mancini’s opening speech, each of the campers, seated in a large circle on the floor of the Rock Room, answers the question, “Why are you here?”
I’ve been wanting to sing in a band since I was a kid.
I’m here because I get the message every day that I’m not good enough.
My BFF said it was life-changing and that you’re not the same person when you walk out.
I’m nervous all the time.
I turned a big age this year and I want to get way way way way out of my comfort zone.
I’m a perfectionist and I’m here so I don’t have to be.
I’m here for the sixth time because the world is a toilet and for three days I can pretend it’s not.
I said to my friend that if Girls Rock Camp had existed when I was young my life would be so different. She said it can be different now.
I was very resistant. I have no musical ability. None at all.
That last answer, or non-answer, is Carolyn Zagame’s. Tiny, tidy, and fiercely traditional, she is looking at her hands, which are folded in her lap. It’s hard to imagine her crashing in a roach-infested apartment in Brighton with a bunch of roommates while attending Boston College, but back then, in the early ‘80s, Zagame was as ambitious as she was broke. She studied hard, graduated with honors, and began moving up the corporate ladder, dreaming of the penthouse she would one day buy for herself.
She was a young sales manager at a company that made fiber optic products for turbine planes when her boss began sexually harassing her. Two weeks after being summoned to his hotel room on a business trip — it didn’t go well, Zagame says — she was laid off. Her self-esteem tanked and her mother’s words, the drumbeat of a generation, came to her with crushing force. “‘Don’t worry about brains. You’re small and you’re pretty, you’ll find a husband to take care of you.’ That’s what she told me all my life.” And that’s what Zagame did. She never returned to the workplace, finding meaning in motherhood and, eventually, her faith. The feelings of worthlessness that derailed her professional career were long gone, or so she thought. Then she became the keyboard player in Fallen Petals.
The mechanics of band formation, which follows morning assembly on the first day, is confounding. To begin, campers are instructed to stand under the genre sign that best represents their favorite music. Then they’re told to walk to their second favorite genre. For a while all bodies are in motion, bouncing in slo-mo off the walls of the Rock Room, clumping and dispersing like electrons following the mysterious law of musical attraction. You can see women weighing their tastes, second-guessing decades of fandom. As the mood grows more confused, the women are specifically instructed to not freak out. There are nine drummers in the room; shortly there will be nine new bands in the world. Each will spend the weekend with a pair of coaches, who are also wandering around the Rock Room in pre-determined teams, waiting for a look or a vibe or a random act of proximity to match them with their charges.
Grace Buchanan, who is 50, looks significantly less alarmed than some of the other first-timers, maybe because she has done crazy things before, like enrolling in comedy school for the sole purpose of surviving the end of her marriage. A software architect with tattooed calves and a graying pompadour, she describes herself as “a bit outgoing,” which is like saying Bikini Kill is a bit punk. Like many of the women here, Buchanan learned about Ladies Rock Camp from a friend who went and wouldn’t shut up about it. Buchanan played French horn and trombone in high school, but these days she gets her kicks singing along to Erasure and Eurythmics, so she signed up to do vocals at camp.
Here’s how Buchanan describes the process: “I stood between GARAGE and GLAM for a while and then I walked around looking for 80s ALTERNATIVE or 70s ROCK and a few other women were nearby and then someone came up to me and said ‘do you want to sing in our band?’ and suddenly I was like ‘what is happening?’” Half an hour after band formation, Buchanan and the four other members of the newly-constituted Girl Skull are huddled in a corner of the Jungle Room having their first Quiet Band Practice, when groups make whatever progress they can writing a song without plugging in.
To start, a coach encouraged them to map out what they wanted to say. “We had been talking about how few women there are in metal, and the shit they go through, and the common thread was how we don’t want the next generation of girls to have to go through that,” Buchanan says. “One of my bandmates said we need to kick the door open. And I was like, yes. That.”
Rock music can be really dumb. Also: coarse, plain, raw, wanton, blunt, and rough. The 10,000 hours of practice we’re told is requisite simply doesn’t apply. That’s not to say there aren’t virtuosic practitioners who make rock music of the highest caliber, just that there are things that matter more than experience or precision. Early on the second day, Boston-based tunesmith Merrie Amsterburg is in the Jungle Room delivering a laid-back master class in songwriting. All you need, she explains, scratching at her guitar, is three chords and a lot of attitude. Heads start to nod, in recognition, in relief. Campers are sitting on the edge of their folding chairs. Amsterburg begins to sing in her otherworldly soprano.
I saw him dancin’ there by the record machine
I knew he musta been about seventeen
The beat was goin’ strong
Playin’ my favorite song.
By the time she gets to the chorus everyone in the room is singing along, including Carolyn Zagame, who has tiptoed from the back row to the front. She knows all the words.
I love rock ’n roll
Put another dime in the jukebox, baby
I love rock ’n roll
So come an’ take your time an’ dance with me.
Actually, Amsterburg goes on, all you need is two chords. Or less. There’s “Joy,” a song by Lucinda Williams made of a single chord and a truckload of grit.
I don’t want you anymore
Cause you took my joy
I don’t want you anymore
Cause you took my joy
You took my joy
I want it back
You took my joy
I want it back.
Hilken Mancini has felt it herself, that conviction and productive rage. Mancini, 48, once thought she would be a dancer, but midway through her sophomore year at Boston Conservatory she traded her toe shoes for an electric guitar. What she lacked in know-how Mancini made up in zealotry. She dropped out of school, bleached her hair, spent her evenings in rock clubs and her days working at Tower Records, where she met another female rocker named Chris Toppin and the pair formed Fuzzy, one of the celebrated bands to come out of Boston’s ‘90s alt-rock scene. Mancini’s career took off. She settled into a long-term relationship with Fuzzy’s bass player and created Punk Rock Aerobics, a popular fitness regime for anyone who was ever picked last for kickball, according to the companion book. Everything was great.
In rock there’s one thing that matters more than cunning or speed or experience or precision, and that’s conviction.
Fast forward 13 years. Fuzzy is finished, the bass player has left her, and Punk Rock Aerobics has imploded. “I was freaked out,” Mancini says. “I knew I wasn’t going to have a baby and a normal life, but it felt weird and awful to say goodbye to all that. It was a really hard time. I was feeling pretty crazy. Then I went to girls rock camp in Portland and it blew my mind.”
Chance, destiny, karma, call it what you will: timing is everything. Just as Mancini’s life was falling apart, the organizers at the Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for GirlsThe camp grew out of founder Misty McElroy’s project as a women’s studies major at Portland State University. There are now Girls Rock Camps in more than 40 American cities.in Portland, Oregon asked her to bring Punk Rock Aerobics to their summer program. Away she went, in emotional tatters, into a community of women — including Nora Allen-Wiles, a college intern and activist who would become the co-founder and executive director of Girls Rock Campaign Boston. All of them fortified Mancini with the sheer force of their radical support. They wanted her to run assemblies. She said no way. She didn’t even know their theme song. She would definitely throw up. The night before camp started, Mancini was handed a script and told she would be fine. “85 girls were coming the next day so I did it, because that’s the ethos. I believe in you. I believe in you. I started to be, like, I can do this in Boston.”
I-believe-in-you ethos notwithstanding, Fallen Petals is struggling to play the bouncy retro-pop tune the group is working on at Saturday afternoon’s Loud Band Practice. The Ladies Rock Camp curriculum is designed to arm novices with the rudimentary tools to write a part for their song — choose a few notes or chords, make up a melody, bash out a beat. Carolyn Zagame has settled on her three notes; the problem is counting. “Is it F, 1, 2, 3, 4? Or is it F, 2, 3, 4? This is challenging for me, you guys!”
Despite her reticence to come to camp, Zagame has loosened up. Cheerful is clearly her baseline, and in a community that skews toward the fluid and the pierced, Zagame, in her favorite beige sweater and unironic mom jeans, has become the unlikely life of the party. “You guys are so cool!” she keeps saying. “I’m just trying to survive over here!” Her demeanor is jocular but there’s a frantic undertow. She grabs a tambourine and shakes it wildly over her head. “Maybe your coolness will rub off on me!” The band coaches have seen it before. Saturday afternoon is when things start feeling real, when the fun idea of Ladies Rock Camp morphs into the alarming realization that tomorrow is show day. Practice is almost over and the band decides to try to get through the song without stopping. JC and Mona, Fallen Petals’ coaches, do everything they can to be supportive, stationing themselves on either side of Zagame’s keyboard, one of them holding up fingers to count beats and the other calling out the names of the notes. Still, it’s rough going, and not just for the keyboardist. Zagame bursts into tears. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Saying I’m sorry at Ladies Rock Camp is like quaffing beer at an AA meeting. Mancini has developed chants and cheers in an effort to cure the campers, not to mention the coaches and instructors and administrators and, truth be told, herself, of the knee-jerk impulse to apologize for their mistakes, which, you’ll recall, theoretically don’t exist here. But of course they do. Which brings us to a game Mancini calls Power Pose.A 2010 study co-authored by Harvard University psychologist Amy Cuddy and popularized in a blockbuster TED talk found certain physical stances can lead to changes in body chemistry that boost confidence.
When you’re on stage there are gonna be things you’re worried about. We’re gathered in the Rock Room at assembly. Am I gonna be good enough? Can I do this? I’m uncomfortable in my body. That’s why we’re gonna play Power Pose. Mancini plays this game with the youngsters at Girls Rock Camp, too. It comes in handy at all ages. All our lives, whenever we do anything wrong, we’re so apologetic for making a mistake, for taking up space, we’re like ‘Oh my god, I’m so sorry!’ Her voice sails up into ultra femme range on that last part. How many of you are nervous about making a mistake? Queasy laughter ripples across the room. Yeah. How many of you are nervous about disappointing your band? Murmurs of assent. Of course. We all feel that way. But we don’t care if you make a mistake. We love you when you when make a mistake. If you drop that pick, roll into it. Mancini pulls a pick from her pocket, flings it to the ground, and tucks into an awkward somersault. If you drop a drumstick, jump over your kit. She leaps over an imaginary drum. Boys get that from the start. Go for it, run, fall, scream, spit, sweat. We’re told to stand up straight and get good grades. Her pacing has grown purposeful. Fervent. I want you to make that mistake bigger. Be our heroes, for our girls and for each other. I want you to find the pose that makes you feel comfortable and good. I don’t care what it is. Stand up.
Attitude, the mission-critical element that Merrie Amsterburg talks about in her songwriting workshop, the one that allows scrappy punk bands to take the world by storm, Grace Buchanan has got it. Once Girl Skull stumbled onto the idea of kicking the door open, she says, “I barfed up those lyrics and 15 minutes later we had the song.” For the next two days, “Kick the Door Open (For the Girls Behind)” drifts under the door of Studio D, down in the basement, getting louder and charging harder by the hour.
Measure the ankles, the calves, the thighs
Don’t eat anything that will alter your size
Don’t be loud, don’t be strong
If you’re not docile then you’re just plain wrong.
A little voice in Buchanan’s head is growing louder, too. It’s her mother’s voice, telling her this isn’t the kind of music she should be singing. “This is her worst nightmare,” Buchanan says. “Me in a black T-shirt shrieking in a band.” Everyone is living with ghosts.
Sounds emanating from the practice rooms are building, ineffably, not toward something finished or polished but with a collective energy that feels closer to faith. Remember the levitation game that was popular at kids’ slumber parties, where someone lays flat on the floor and the others place one or two fingertips underneath her limbs while chanting light as a feather, stiff as a board, over and over, until the prone body, miraculously weightless, is lifted off the ground? That kind of faith.
Even as it deepens faith is tested. The self-doubt that Carolyn Zagame figured was ancient history has returned with a vengeance. At practice, she lowers her head and through tears recites a checklist. “I’m just worried I’m gonna look so stupid up there. I really do like the shadows. I never wanted to be on stage.” She looks ready to bail, at least for a breather, maybe forever, but agrees to run the tune one more time before breaking to attend an afternoon workshop (the choices are Rebel Yell Yoga, Conquering the Stage, and DIY Music Creation). Despite the emotional turmoil, or possibly because of it, Zagame and her bandmates look at each other instead of their hands while playing, a risk that pays off. The song is sort of hanging together. This is no small feat; everyone is struggling to remember their parts and keep the tempo. As if on cue, a volunteer pokes her head in the door and apologizes for barging in but she happened to be wandering by and heard the song and just had to tell them how happy it made her feel.
Temporarily restored, Zagame heads off to yoga, but a couple of hours later, between workshops and dinner, she has another meltdown, up in the Rock Room. It comes out of nowhere. In a flash she’s surrounded by a handful of campers and coaches and someone goes off to fetch her daughter, Ali, who joins the huddle. The circle around Zagame grows closer and tighter.
That night, after Mexican food, there’s a surprise dress rehearsal, when each of the bands performs its song on stage in the Rock Room. During Fallen Petals’ performance, Ali is at the lip of the stage with her mouth hanging open, snapping pictures. After they finish, Fallen Petals, like all the bands, exits the stage to ear-splitting shouts of “Holy shit! Holy shit! Holy shit!” Zagame, looking stunned, falls into her daughter’s arms. “Her determination and her willingness amazes me,” says Ali. “I had to twist her arm at first but she’s coming out of her shell. I believe this will change her life.”
It’s been a long day. Instead of returning to her hotel as planned, though, Zagame commandeers the Saturday night dance party. She drops to her knees and launches into an impromptu Kazatsky, the Russian folk dance, squatting and kicking with her arms folded in front of her. The room erupts, in shock, in delight, in the knowledge that badasses walk among us, even if we can’t see them. Even if they can’t see themselves.
It’s show day. There’s a final instruction session and a short band practice. A pair of stylists from a local salon comes in to give the campers cool hairdos and a photographer spirits each band away to a stairwell or the street to snap promo photos. A few hours later, just before the doors to Once Ballroom open to the public, the campers pile into the club’s kitchen, some in glitter and heels, others in jeans and T-shirts, everyone pressed shoulder to shoulder and quivering with nerves and excitement.
Mancini and Allen-Wiles hoist themselves up onto a metal countertop to deliver the pre-show pep talk, crouching to keep from hitting their heads on the ceiling. Mancini is beside herself, exalting the women for their courage and their heart. She promises them that magic is going to happen on stage tonight. She believes so hard I think she could lift the whole room up with her pinky finger. But Allen-Wiles delivers the gut punch.
You can’t forget this. You have to wake up tomorrow morning, even though you’re not putting on your lanyard, you’re not coming back to rock camp, you have to walk back into your job or wherever your life is and say what to the status quo? FUCK YOU. You can’t go back the same. You have to treat women differently. Every day. You have to smile at women on the street. Tell them that you notice them, that they matter, because that’s where it starts. And then you build it and you build it and you build it.
If I could, I would explain exactly how the exhausted campers muscling through the final band practice at Spontaneous Celebrations turned into the rock goddesses on stage at Once, but Mancini is right. It feels like magic. I’m not just talking about the devil-horns hand gestures Carolyn Zagame hurls at the crowd like she’s the mother of all metal, although that sight alone is worth the price of admission, or Grace Buchanan’s pulverizing performance of “Kick the Doors Open (For the Girls Behind),” a bona fide anthem that should be heard around the world. I’m talking about nine swaggering baby bands, loaded with personality and armed with lyrics like pages ripped from a diary or a manifesto or a long-buried volume of poetry that might never have seen the light of day were it not for three insane days in the bubble.
Leaving can be hard. It’s also the point. The idea of Ladies Rock Camp isn’t to keep the rest of the world at bay, but to expand the bubble, make it bigger and bigger until the whole world is in it. Sometimes that means walking away with a piece of that punk-rock conviction and playing it, like a loud guitar, in your regular life. I asked around and heard about campers who had left with newfound courage to end a bad relationship, request a raise, form a band, stop hating their bodies.
But it’s not always that simple or direct. It’s not always a transformation that instantly changes a life forever. Sometimes it’s just a persistent memory, like an earworm reverberating inside a former camper’s head. Carolyn Zagame returned to her hometown, to family, to church, to her routine. When I asked her what will stay with her from camp, her voice took on a tone of reverence. “I did something I never thought I could do. I surprised myself,” she said. “This, I think, is what I’ll carry with me.”
Joan Anderman is a writer based in Boston and a member of the band Field Day.