That Thing, That Thing, That Thing

I was coming out of the men’s room when I heard it.

The women’s room had been occupied, but both of them were single-use. No one had stopped me, and I’d always believed all single-use bathrooms should be all-gender bathrooms, anyway. It was a typical L.A. restaurant, where one half of the seating is indoors, and one half is outside, and I was headed back outside to rejoin my friends. But I passed the coffee bar, I heard one young male barista ask another a question that will haunt me for the rest of my life.

“What is that thing that women can do that men can’t do?”

Immediately, I stopped walking. What was that thing? What could he possibly mean? It couldn’t be something like “give birth,” something “not only wrong but pathetically obvious,” in the setting-off-an-alarm-on-QI sort of way. Not all women can do that! Did he really mean all women, cis and trans, of all ages? Was he making a joke? Referencing a stereotype? Some old canard people trot out when they think they’re being edgy? Should I give him the benefit of the doubt?

Sometimes people accuse me of overthinking things. Sometimes people’s accusations are completely correct. I just knew that I could not move on until I knew what he was talking about. I thought back to Lewis Black’s old bit about being at the IHOP and overhearing a phrase so stupid that it made him understand why people had aneurysms: “If it weren’t for my horse, I never would have spent that year in college!” A few years ago I brought up that bit to a roommate who was originally from rural Virginia, and she said “I think I might actually know the woman who said that!” It turns out there is such a thing as a horse scholarship. (There are also catalogs called Prairie State Swine Semen that farmers use when they’re breeding hogs. She brought one home after Christmas.)

“What are you talking about?” I heard the other barista say, and I silently thanked him for that.

“You know,” said the first barista said back, with characteristic L.A. incoherence. “That thing women can do that men can’t.”

There were too many easy jokes I could make. Jokes about men, while a guilty pleasure, seem fatalistic to me, and get depressing really fast. I really want to believe that men can do and be good. I also took too many (i.e., one and a half) philosophy classes in college, and have spent too long on the internet, thus am always half-expecting anyone to respond to any maxim of mine with a counterexample.

“It’s that thing,” he said again, I leaned in, closer, expectantly. He chose that moment to turn on the blender.

“Goddammit,” I whispered, but he didn’t stop talking, and I didn’t stop straining to hear.

“You know… WHhhIIIIRRRRRrrrr muscle VVVrrrRRvvmmm upper body WHHHHIIIRRRRR flexibility or something…”

So it was something physical. That narrowed it down, but only slightly. I remembered an article about women’s flexibility, some pop science explanation of why women tend to cross their arms and lift from the bottom to take off their shirts. Maybe it had something to do with that? I pulled out my phone, and—not for the first time — looked up “the way women take their shirts off”. Nothing. Nothing substantial, anyway. And nothing I’d want to be looking at in public. It was entirely possible this article did not exist, that I’d made it up and read it in a dream. Oh God, even my sexy dreams are boring.

I looked up from my phone, and for the first time, the baristas noticed me.

“Do you need something?” said the question-asker.

“I…” I need to know what you’re talking about. I need to know what you mean. I need to know what that thing is. What is this superpower I have that you do not?

“I… no,” I said. “I don’t need anything.”

I had no choice but to walk on, silently furious that I still had no idea. They turned back to the drinks they were making, as if they had no idea of the mental damage they’d done. One thing these men could do that this woman could not? Let things go.

I went outside to rejoin my friends, both of whom were women, and both of whom are queer. “What is that thing women can do that men can’t?” I asked them. They had several ideas.

Stuff I Did This Week: My interview with Lisa Jakub, Matt Lawrence, and Pierce Brosnan about the 25th anniversary of Mrs. Doubtfire aired on the Today show! You can watch the full, extended interview here. I also did interviews with Entertainment Weekly and Variety about my memories of Doubtfire and working with Robin.

Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: Bubble and Squeak (SYNOPSIS: either a duo comedy set in a restaurant or a buddy cop detective series)

Watching a Paul Thomas Anderson Movie

Stage by Stage

1/8 OF THE WAY IN: I don’t get it.

1/4 OF THE WAY IN: It’s pretty, but I still don’t get it.

1/3 OF THE WAY IN: Oh! Something’s happening, and I understand it, I think!

3/8 OF THE WAY IN: Nope, nevermind, I don’t get it.

HALFWAY THROUGH: What time is it?

5/8 OF THE WAY THROUGH: What year is it?

2/3 OF THE WAY THROUGH: Is it me? Am I just not intelligent or sensitive enough to understand this? Why do his films just feel like a long, meandering, moody character study that doesn’t go anywhere? And I like long, meandering, moody character studies that don’t go anywhere! I love Chekhov and Tolstoy and Richard Linklater! Is everybody else lying when they say they love his movies? Am I overthinking it? Do I just not speak his language? That’s impossible, Paul Thomas Anderson and I are both from the San Fernando Valley! Why can’t I understand a goddamn thing he does?

3/4 OF THE WAY THROUGH: HOLY SHIT, I THINK I FINALLY UNDERSTAND THIS

7/8 OF THE WAY THROUGH: Nope. No. Not at all. I have no clue.

ENDING: At least I still have Maya Rudolph.

Stuff I Did This Week: I moderated my dear friend and Welcome to Night Vale creator Joseph Fink’s L.A. book reading for Alice Isn’t Dead! It is a beautiful and creepy story about love and anxiety, and if you haven’t already listened to the podcast, you need to get this book! And you should get the book even if you have listened to the podcast. (And you should listen to the podcast.) GET THIS BOOK!

Then, last night, I moderated my other dear friend Lane Moore’s book event! Her book How To Be Alone is an honest and cathartic look at Lane’s life spent raising herself, with lots of advice and hope for those who grew up without a support system. But regardless of your upbringing, it’s a funny, eye-opening, and heartening read. GET THIS BOOK, TOO!

Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: Great Britain’s Greatest Binmen

My Secret to Productivity

(Spasibo, Nadezhda)

Do you often have trouble getting yourself to do things you don’t want to do? Well, I’ve found a special method that works for me! Next time you need some motivation, try this:

Think of Elizabeth Jennings from The Americans yelling at you to do it, and you will do it.

Feeling nervous about jumping into the pool because the water may be too cold?

Think of Elizabeth Jennings yelling at you to do it, and you will do it.

Putting off that thing you should be writing because you’re scared it might not be good?

Think of Elizabeth Jennings yelling at you to do it, and you will do it.

It works. Bozhe moi, does it work. Mind you, I don’t admire Elizabeth Jennings, or sympathize with her. I know she’s a murderer, many times over. I know she doesn’t give a shit about anything other than rodina. I also know that nothing gets me in the mood to do the dishes faster than thinking of explaining to trying to explain to her that I’m not in the mood, and her responding, “Well, then you get yourself in the mood!”

It’s possible might be more susceptible to this because I come from a line of stern, angry Eastern European and Russian women who yelled a lot. (An Eastern European nurse with freezing cold hands took my vitals last week, and I felt a flood of nostalgia.) I’d like to think it’s universal, though if you can think of any other characters that, despite themselves, strike fear and motivation into your heart, feel free to share! As it stands now, all that stands between me and disappointing myself is the thought of Keri Russell’s beautiful, furious, throbbing forehead vein.

Stuff I Did This Week: I’m happy to announce that with the help of Penguin Books and The Roald Dahl Foundation, the amazing 2000 Libros will be delivering copies of Matilda in Spanish to the migrant children held in detention centers at the border. I’ve also been donating to RAICES and other organizations to help them, but this felt like the least I could do. You can support 2000 Libros, too: check out their wishlist!

Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: Effin’ and Geoff-in’ (SYNOPSIS: Knockin’ about with a foulmouthed Northerner named Geoff)

Me, My Dad, and Halloween Hans

Quick note: I hope everyone had a great Halloween! I meant to post this earlier on in the week, but was waylaid by an illness. (I’m better now!) Anyway, who’s to say Halloween cheer needs to end now? It’s always Halloween in our souls.

As a child, I was something of a wimp. I never could stomach most of the things my friends considered “scary.” Roller coasters made me miserable, and haunted houses made me burst into tears. Horror movies were right out: even the fun kid ones, like Hocus Pocus or The Witches, scared me too much. To this day, I haven’t seen any of the Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, or even Jaws movies. I never liked anything with a lot of scary, unexpected twists and turns, literal or figurative.

But being a wimp didn’t mean that I didn’t have a taste for the macabre. At seven, I turned my Playmobil dollhouse into the Bates Motel from Psycho (one of the few horror movies I was too young to understand and thus not scared by.) At ten, I was drawing wounds on my Barbies and Kens and tying strings around their necks (until my babysitter told me to stop because it was “creepy.”) At ten, I knew Bruce Coville’s anthologies of scary stories by heart, and would recite them from memory at Girl Scout campouts. By twelve, I was wearing all black, talking constantly about death, and memorizing Smiths songs. It’s remarkable to me now that I never really had a formal goth phase.

Naturally, I loved Halloween. I felt nervous and afraid every single day, but one day a year, I felt in control of it. The scary stuff was expected, safe, and fun. Even better, I realized that while I didn’t necessarily like being scared, I loved being scary.

My family didn’t decorate much or have a Halloween party, no matter how much I begged. One year we didn’t even remember to carve the pumpkin we had bought, and left it in the backyard. (We forgot all about it until we found some strange vines growing in the flowerbed the following Spring.) My mother, never a wimp and always a big fan of roller coasters and horror movies, never cared much for Halloween. She always seemed to find it too much of a hassle — unsurprising, as she had five children to wrangle into costumes and coax down from sugar highs. My stepmother liked Halloween just fine, but not enough to invest much time or energy into it.

My father, however, loved it. He’s a practical, cerebral, soft-spoken man, and you wouldn’t expect it, but it’s his favorite holiday. “It’s the one day a year I can go out without a mask,” he’d always quip. One of his favorite ever tapes was called “Horror Sounds of the Night,” full of creaking boards, wind blowing, wolves howling in the distance, and maniacal laughter. He’d play it a lot in October, but also just whenever we’d let him, regardless of the time of year. He always had a mask or costume ready to use, and always wanted to go all out with the decorations. We could just never get it together enough in time.

Until the year we did.

I was in fifth grade, and a new makeup supply store, Cinema Secrets, had opened nearby. Their Halloween selection was unbelievable: an entire store was devoted to costumes, prosthetics, and every kind of yard and house decoration. We went the night before Halloween “just to look around” but came home with a carload of supplies. We bought, among other things, lights, tombstones, fake cobwebs and spiders, a rubber bat, a movement activated ghost, a new Horror Sounds album — on CD this time! — and a rubber severed hand.

The next night, after we’d carved our pumpkins — and after my dad continued our tradition of shoving my hand deep into the gooey pumpkin guts — we decorated. We had borrowed some caution tape from someone who worked in the fire department, so we hung it around the carport and drew chalk outlines in the driveway. We put the headstones, the rubber bat, and the ghost in the front yard, and hung pumpkin and skeleton lights in the windows next to a few of my “dead” Barbies. The horror sounds CD went on, and the cobwebs and fake spiders went everywhere.

“What are we going to do with the hand, though?” I said. “We could put it in the garden, I guess? So it looks like it’s coming out of the ground?” My mom had always said nothing scared her more than the hand coming up out of the ground at the end of Carrie.

My dad grinned a mischievous grin. “I have a better idea,” he said. Wordlessly, he got out our blender and a jar of pasta sauce. He poured the sauce into the bottom of the blender, then put the hand into the blender, right over the blade. I gasped. It was funnier, grosser, and creepier than anything I could have imagined.

“Oh my gosh,” I said. “We can put the candy in between his fingers! Like he’s our helper or servant — like Thing! We can call him ‘Hans!’ Get it?” My dad laughed, and I laughed, and for the first time, I knew exactly where I got my macabre side.

Hans was a big hit with the neighborhood kids, who gratefully accepted the candy he “handed” them. He was probably an even bigger hit with my older brothers and their friends. He was the pièce de résistance of the best Halloween ever, my dad’s dreams fully realized. Yet, when I tell full-grown adults about Hans now, they seem shocked. Even the ones who love haunted houses and horror movies seem to think we went a bit too far with that one.

I’d never want to scare anyone who didn’t want to be scared, of course. But I think people underestimate just how creepy most kids can be. As my dad would say every October, “It’s fun to be scared just a little bit, isn’t it?”

Stuff I Did This Week: Reconnected with some old, old friends! It was lovely to see my “big sister” and my “big brother” and my incredibly handsome “stepdad.” Seriously, how does Pierce look the same as he did twenty-five years ago?

Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: The Witches of Belgravia

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