The Sound of Bravado

Excuse me, sir. Can I borrow your swagger?

Ray Stubblebine / Reuters

In the middle of the night, my husband's snores sometimes sound like a cellphone vibrating. Other times, they sound like waves crashing on a rocky shore, or a minor chord being played a little tentatively on a church organ, one low note mixed with two wheezier, higher notes. Last night, they sounded like the carriage return on a typewriter, the heavy, industrial kind that's electric, but still gives a kick when the carriage swings to the left side of the machine with a scratchy clatter.

I loved to listen to that sound when I visited my mother's office as a kid. Listening to her type 120 words a minute on an IBM Selectric felt like an odd, percussive form of meditation. I would lean way back in the swivel chair in her office and marvel at that sound of no-nonsense efficiency and capability in action. She'd been a housewife since she married my dad, who was a professor. But after 15 not-so-happy years together, she'd finally divorced him. Now she had three kids to feed, with no alimony, and very little child support. Good thing she aced her typing class in high school.

Occasionally my mom would be interrupted by her boss, an older professor who wore tweedy, English caps and argyle sweaters and pants that might best be described as jodhpurs. He would wander in with an unfocused look on his face and he'd ask where she put some papers he needed to send off. She'd stop and give him a strained smile that told me she'd taken care of these things days ago. The professor had giant shelves full of bound journal-volumes in his office. Every few months, my mother would send away the flimsy-looking journals to the binder, and they'd return covered in leather, with gold lettering on the side. “Why does he do that?” I asked. “I don't know,” she answered.

The professor didn't know how to type. He appeared not to know his own schedule, or even what day of the week it was. He could place a call, but sometimes he got confused if he had to put someone on hold and then take them off again. He would often stand in the doorway between his office and hers, his eyes watering slightly, his back a little stooped, and he'd hesitate to admit what bit of information he was struggling to retrieve. Even though he had all of the necessary levels of arrogance and condescension to have become a world-renowned neurobiologist and endowed professor of something-or-other, he didn't seem very capable of handling the mundane challenges of his life.

My mother would fight against this distracting presence for as long as she could stand, and then the suspense would be too great, and she'd interrupt her virtuoso typing solo, mid-measure.

A pause, maybe four quarter notes of silence. “Well?” she'd say, a half note of whispery restraint with an exasperated edge to it. My mother had been a straight-A math major in college. She was first chair clarinet in her high school band. She had all of the arrogance and condescension to have become a world-renowned neurobiologist, too. But she was a secretary instead, so she had a lot of shit to do.

*  *  *

Bravado, if it made a noise, might sound like a major chord being played with great force on a Chapel organ. That's the sound I think of when my husband is working on a talk “for the Chinese,” or Skyping with one of his graduate students about how their work needs more work.  My husband is not a blowhard, but he knows how to sound like one. He's not allergic to that sound. It's the sound of a throat being cleared for a little too long. It's the sound that a certain kind of facial expression makes, an expression that forms when encountering someone lower on the academic totem pole, speaking imprecisely. It's a kind of “Ehrrrm” that accompanies one side of his mouth dipping down slightly, in a look that says "Not quite," or "Not really." It's the sound jodhpurs would make, if they made a sound.

Like my mother, I always had plenty of bravado, but I never felt completely comfortable deploying it in an official setting. It seemed a little embarrassing, to take yourself seriously in public the way men did. As a woman, you could only use your swagger in playful, non-serious contexts, or in private. So my bravado mostly gave me a solid quarters game in college, or it made me prone to break into terrible dance moves when no one was watching. Sometimes my bravado attracted men, but only those sorts of men who were impressed by brash women. My bravado always felt more comfortable with a drink in its hand. My bravado always felt more at home on the printed page than it did live and in person.

My bravado became jittery and indifferent in an office environment. I could do concrete, measurable work, but I didn't want to represent myself in any official way. I never felt right clearing my throat, or telling anyone that their work needed more work. Some might've said I couldn't play nicely with others, but that wasn't it. I didn't like to pretend—that I knew more than I actually did, or that I was on board with something that seemed ill-considered when I wasn't. Being a professional seemed to require a lot of pretending.

This avoidant attitude might've led me down a path to administrative work, if my dad hadn't died when I was 25 years old. At the time, I was holding down two jobs, one as a glorified typist (which they called a "desktop publisher" at the time) and one as a magazine intern. After my dad's death, I resolved to never again do work that meant nothing to me. I quit the typing job and a few months later, miraculously secured a full-time job writing for a website. A year after that, my employer let me work from home.

I've worked from home ever since, while my husband flies all over the world to give talks and go to academic conferences. I have all of the arrogance and condescension to have become a world-renowned expert, too. But I am a freelance writer instead, so I have a lot of shit to do.

*  *  *

Did my mother and I limit ourselves? Did we assume that men are the ones who fly around and bloviate, and women are the ones who silently get shit done behind the scenes, hidden from view?  Sometimes I think that if I could stand in the doorway between my office and the office of a very fast typist who was paid to listen to me trying hard to remember things, I would be much more successful or world-renowned or at least a little bit more comfortable with my own arrogance. I would proceed with direction and purpose, guided by the certainty that this world is mine as much as anyone else's.

My daughter once asked me, “Who is more famous, you or Daddy?” “Neither of us is famous,” I replied. I thought about the four copies of my memoir, the one that now costs $6.00 on Amazon, sitting on the bookshelf gathering dust in our bedroom. I thought about my husband's last week-long trip away from home, the way the kids kept asking me why I never fly anywhere for work like he does. I remembered how my younger daughter used to think I worked at The Coffee Bean, because I always left the house saying I was going to The Coffee Bean “to work.” I wished that my daughters had some sense of how hard I work (or at least try to work) every single day. I set the bar high for myself. My work always needs more work. Work that needs more work sounds like one high, thin note that stretches on and on forever.

Thinking about this made me a little peeved about all those men with their trips and their bravado and their fucking jodhpurs. My mood shifted. Imagine a dramatic key change, a half-step up the scale. Imagine the sound of the shift bar engaging, that sound a typewriter makes when the whole carriage moves up a quarter of an inch and stays there, IN ALL CAPS. MY MOOD HAD SHIFTED INTO ALL CAPS.

“SURE, DADDY HAS A GREAT JOB,” I explained, trying to take the ALL-CAPS out of my voice. "He's very important in his field. But there are only about 300 academics around the country who do what he does." I pictured them all, reading and studying each other's work, then flying to conferences to reassure each other of their collective importance. "But when my column comes out, 50,000 people read it. 50,000 is a lot more than 300."

"That's so many!" my daughter says. "That's like everyone in the world."

"Not really. There are 7 billion people in the world. That's 100,000 times more than the number of people who read my column."

"Oh. So you're just a little bit famous."

"The word 'famous' doesn't really apply," I said.

Silence. Suspense building.

"But I am more famous than Daddy. Most people would agree with me about that."

The sound of pointless competitiveness, an awkward grab for glory, is a little bit like a major chord being played sloppily but with great force on a church organ, by a small, angry child.

*  *  *

I often marvel at how well my life has turned out, considering what a fucked-up mess I was not so long ago. But gratitude doesn't always sound so interesting. It sounds like birds chirping outside and one of the dogs nervously biting her ripped-up squirrel toy, waiting for her breakfast. It sounds like the neighbor next door, starting up her car to drive to work, reminding me that I have the luxury of sitting at my desk at home. It sounds like the high-pitched whirr of our blender downstairs, my husband making a smoothie for the kids while I type quickly, as quickly as possible, before the chaos reaches a fever pitch and I descend the stairs to find someone's lost shoe.

What makes the ears perk up more is the low rumble of uncertainty and discontent, like an 18-wheeler barreling down the freeway, its axles rattling loud enough to be heard a mile away. In those moments when my husband is flying all over the place and I'm at home doing another load of laundry, I question the way I've always kept my bravado on the written page or in a glass rattling with ice cubes. I wonder why I didn't get a Ph.D, so I could be treated like royalty everywhere I go, too, instead of being treated like some housewife battling major delusions of grandeur.

If I were treated like royalty, maybe I wouldn't have to say stupid things to myself when I feel insignificant, things like, "Boy, I sure do give good advice!" and "I've been writing for twenty years and I am a fucking professional, that's the thing. I know how to get in the zone and get 'er done."

Working from home can feel luxurious and it can feel pathetic, depending on the hour of the day. But when someone offers me an important-seeming job or speaking gig, the truth is, I sometimes feel more dread than excitement. I'm not sure I want to fly places and hold forth. Even though I grew up watching my father bloviate and my mother type, and even though I probably limited myself by viewing ego-driven activities as elaborate acts of make-believe, at this point it's pretty hard to separate the sexist landscape that is my homeland from my core personality. I have certain intractable ideas about myself and where I belong.

And some stubborn part of me wants to be the capable one instead of the one who can't remember what day of the week it is. Some sexist part of me thinks that it's almost superior to be the busy, condescending one, at home in her soft pants, talking to the dogs and rolling her eyes when she overhears the arrogant throat-clearing of a Skype conference in the next room, or shoving a pillow over her head when the snoring starts to sound like a minor-key crescendo of jet engines, taking off for Helsinki or Shanghai or Singapore.

But I want my daughters to have the kind of bravado that transcends the page and the cocktail glass. I want them to play nicely with others, yes, but not so nicely that they're the ones organizing and scheduling and remembering while some guy gets to wander around, unfocused but still sure of his place in the world. I don't want my daughters to be the ones with lots of shit to do. I want them to have the time and the space to be great.

If that sounds entitled, well, I want my daughters to feel as entitled as my father did, as my mom's boss did. I don't want them to feel like they have to prove themselves over and over again, like I do. I am only as good as the last thing I wrote. Maybe that has nothing to do with being a woman. Maybe that's just how it feels to be a writer. That high, thin note never stops telling you your work needs more work.

*  *  *

When I hear parents talking about what they want for their kids, it makes me wonder if it's not a projection: The dyslexic mom who takes her son to Kumon three times a week. The awkward dad who insists on pricey ballet lessons. The shy couple who throw their daughter a splashy birthday party. Maybe I'm the one who wants more time and space to be great.

My own mother encountered big dreams and big egos with skepticism. I always admired that about her, the way she held her own and commanded respect in a room full of blowhards. At faculty functions, men and women alike were drawn to her, maybe because she wasn't either tooting her own horn or pandering to the bigwigs like everyone else.

But my mother probably deserved to toot her own horn more. You shouldn't have to choose between becoming a capable, pragmatic handmaiden who tries not to take up too much space or a disorganized dreamer with a bloated ego who steps on everyone's toes. And I can see now that other people have ego rewards built into their daily lives—meetings, conferences, water cooler talk, accolades, long mutually congratulatory conversations with their peers. As shallow as those things can be, after years of packing my days with as much efficient work as possible and treating any moment of self-satisfaction as shameful, it's about time I gazed at a bookshelf filled with leather-bound journals. I want to be unabashedly proud of my work for once in my life. I want to hold my ground and acknowledge that yeah, I'm an adult now and I know some things. Instead of apologizing for being too proud or insisting that my accomplishments aren't that big of a deal, I want to sigh contentedly. My sighs will sound like the "Poof!" a wild mushroom makes when you step right into the middle of it for no good reason, other than you're alone in the woods and the woods belong to you for just a moment.

Maybe it's a little selfish and entitled, to walk around caving in mushrooms like that. But I don't care. I will lean far back in my swivel chair until the springs squeak. I will dream in full color, my snores an orchestral crescendo, and wake up feeling sure that this world belongs to me.