She’s not a “Pretty Little Liar,” but Emma Sulkowicz is not an Innocent: When Performance Distracts from the Real Issues

Art’s greatest power is that it gives a voice to the voiceless. There is no singular language through which we can express ourselves, and sometimes, we lose our words — art can give us back those words. It can give us a language to share our hurt, our triumph, our distress, our distrust, our glory. It can give us the power to connect on a raw, human level; to be seen for who we are and what we stand for when people previously refuse to look and listen. Images are powerful things.

The image of Emma Sulkowicz standing on stage at the Columbia Commencement with her mattress is a powerful image.

And like everything about “Carry That Weight,” it’s a problematic one.

I had seen Ms. Sulkowicz on Columbia’s campus about 2 or 3 months ago at a public event. I was there as a supportive Columbia alumni, and looked around to see if her “weight” was with her. She was hard to miss with her blue hair (how very school spirit!) standing with a group of friends, laughing. I couldn’t see her mattress — I even looked in the stands, outside the doors and it wasn’t anywhere that was visible. I remember those awful twin XL monstrosities in their clinical navy blue plasticized cases. They’re hard to miss in public places. Perhaps if I had seen it, and perhaps it was there somewhere, I would have been more supportive of her decision to carry it at graduation.

I felt a tinge of hypocrisy and a need for personal attention. And I feel bad that I feel that way.

Ms. Sulkowicz chose to walk at her graduation from a University she feels mistreated her. That’s where I’m confused. To me, the more powerful act of protest would have been to NOT be there. To not walk and stand outside the campus with her mattress would have spoken volumes. That’s a snub to the administration — HER refusal to shake its hand and partake in its ceremonies. Instead, she’s walking away with an Ivy League degree and a photo opt. That seems like an all around win for Ms. Sulkowicz… but not necessarily a win for the cause.

The media all gravitated to President Bollinger’s “snub” — there was no handshake for Ms. Sulkowicz as she crossed the stage. There are those horrid “Pretty Little Liar” posters plastered around Morningside Heights. It’s all just sickening. Did Prez Bo snub her? Or was he advised not to shake her hand by lawyers because of the implication that he supported the “trial by media” her performance waged against her accused assailant?

I don’t know… and the problem is, I’m starting not to care.

Well, I mean, I’m starting not to care about Emma Sulkowicz.

Ms. Sulkowicz is becoming a distraction. Where once she was the rallying voice against a broken system, she has come to undermine the cause. It’s become an Emma vs. Paul, Emma vs. Columbia, Paul vs. Columbia tale. Somewhere along the way, we lost the real issue — that the rate of sexual and gender-based assaults on college campuses are painfully high and that administrations are handling them badly.

Can we please refocus on finding a solution for that, and stop talking about a mattress and student work of art?

When I was a freshman at Columbia, two men in my immediate circles were accused of sexually assaulting women. Both were told to leave for a semester. Neither graduated from Columbia. I don’t know how the proceedings went, but what I do know, is that both cases created major factions within the community. Most of the men’s friends, male and female, took their sides, while the victim was completely ostracized. Black-balled socially. How ridiculous, but also, I’m not unsympathetic.

But here’s the problem with “Carry That Weight,” now that Nessinger has had a chance to be interviewed and is filing a not unjustified lawsuit..

Ms. Sulkowicz has unintentionally erased any chance at true justice in her case.

Why? Ms. Sulkowitz felt violated, and the university and public justice systems failed her. What is justice now for her? Her performance targeted an individual while it raised awareness about a larger issue. In doing so, it vilified her alleged assailant, in what became an international venue. What is justice for him? A settlement, which is likely to happen, won’t absolve him of anything.

A pretty tragic cycle.

Lessons My Mother Taught Me (In Brief… Because there are, Like, A Lot)

There's no doubt my hair and love of patterns are inherited from my mother...

There’s no doubt my hair and love of patterns are inherited from my mother…

The 2003 Land Rover Discovery sitting in the driveway has nearly 300,000 miles on it. My mother and I accumulated most of these as we traveled around the country to fencing tournaments… and to Bob Dylan concerts, and to the Canadian Rockies… but mostly to fencing tournaments. If you add those 300,000 miles to all the airline miles racked up going to World Cups in places like Cuba, France, and Slovakia, and the road trips that followed… like that one from Prague to Barcelona… then we’ve probably traveled about 1 Million miles together.

That’s a lot of miles.

The good news is, that after all this time spent together in close quarters, we not only still love each other, we really LIKE each other.

She’s pretty clever.

I’ve learned lots of things from my mother starting with a simple outlook:

Life is a grand adventure.

AND if you can do it in a 4-star way, do it, because money only has value while you’re alive to spend it.

And do it in good shoes.

She showed me that real education doesn’t come from a book. Real education is in the experiences you get to have when you open your eyes and to the world. Every tournament became an excuse to see something new. In 3 years, I visited over 70 museums — an set of sites I take with me every day to work.

In 2011, I started working and my mother and I officially switched roles as athletes — she because the world class fencer and I became the sporting parent. She’s made 8 Veteran World Championship teams… and that’s after having 2 full hip replacements.

Last year, two weeks before National Championships and the final qualifying tournament for the World team, my mother broke her hand at practice. She was told not to fence. But my mother is a charmer, when she wants to be, so she convinced her doctor to give her a clean bill of health and convinced the cast-maker to develop something she could wear while competing.

The day before the tournament, she walked around the venue with her team jacket draped over her hand to hide the full cast so no one would know she was injured.

Let me tell you — those Veteran fencers are like sharks. If they smell blood in the water, you’re lunchmeat.

She fenced. Medalled. And qualified for the team.

My mother taught me that broken bones and broken hearts heal. A dead end, a “no,” an injury, those aren’t ends. Those are just excuses to find another, a better way to get where you’re going. We’ve been lost a lot — in Italy, in New Foundland, in Bulgaria, in the Bronx. But in life, so far, I’ve never been really lost because she’s given me, and keeps giving me, a road map to follow through it all.

Happy Mother’s Day to the greatest Mother there is!

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Betting on the Ponies

I lost $45 on the Kentucky Derby this weekend. In comparison to more seasoned gamblers, this sum was a mere pittance, but to me, that’s some lost dough worth crying over (it’s also an excellent bottle of Cakebread Chardonnay I won’t be indulging in this month.)

My money had been on Upstart (the owners are family friends) and Materiality (I didn’t mind the odds). I played it safe and only waged on them to show. You can see the results… they did at least show up. Never bet in a show of loyalty/camaraderie. That was this weekend’s sports-betting lesson.

I always wanted a pony, and though I (thankfully) didn't get one, I did ride every weekend.

I always wanted a pony, and though I (thankfully) didn’t get one, I did ride every weekend.

While I partially grew up around horses, I’ve never been good at “picking a horse.” My mother claims she can spot a winner by looking at its hooves. I can look at stats, hooves, tails, stable colors, trainer history, jockey results, and champion names and I still rarely, if ever pick a winner (contrary to your expectations, I’m going to go ahead and refrain from extending this to a personal life metaphor.)

Allow me to pause and quote Truman Capote’s Holly Golighty:

“There are so few things men can talk about. If a man doesn’t like baseball, then he must like horses, and if he don’t like either of them, well, I’m in trouble anyway: he don’t like girls.”

Two summers ago, my mother and I drove up to Elora, Canada, to spend some time with my great Aunt and Uncle Bob. We’d started in Columbus, Ohio, where we had been fencing in the National Championships. We were several hours delayed in leaving for the Great White North because I was stuck in the medic’s tent at the venue. Making a touch to bring a come-from-behind bout to 14-14, I went down. On-strip diagnosis was that I had just torn two ligaments in my knee. I was being numbed with ice, bandaged, and loaded-up with anti-inflammatories.

It was my birthday…

We swung by an area pan-Asian restaurant for road food as we began our beeline out of Ohio. My mother bought me two bottles of sake to drink (“Mom, isn’t it, like, ILLEGAL to be drinking in a car?” “You’re not driving. Happy Birthday!) Immobilized, in pain, and now slightly inebriated, it was hard to know what kind of company I’d be as we made our rounds in rural Ontario.

A snapshot from my day at the races

A snapshot from my day at the races

Aunt Winn and Uncle Bob treated us to a night at Grand River Raceway, a casino and harness-racing track to which they had a membership. In the final years of his life, Uncle Bob had lost most of his vision. He walked with a cane and was in pain most days. But my great uncle was one of the most vibrant, fun-loving sorts you could ever experience. Settled in the restaurant overlooking the track, Uncle Bob had me read aloud the listing of the horses, their records, and the odds. Then he’d hand me a $5 or $20 bill and tell me who to place his bet on.

I’d mull over the listing and announce my picks.

“I’m putting $10 on Curator.”

“What are his odds?”

“I don’t know. But that name — it’s a sign.”

At some point, as the sun was beginning to set, I mustered up enough grit to walk outside and down 2 flights of concrete steps, down to the track. My knee was throbbing. But god, those animals! I leaned against the rails and watched them trot by. Pacing their gates. They all looked like a good bet to me.

Like most little girls, I had a pony and horse obsession, which meant I spent every Saturday in my single-digit years at the stable, and every family vacation usually had to include one ride — whether it was along a beach in Mexico or through the Irish countryside. My parents were wonderfully tolerant. I wanted to have my own dude ranch out west, or own a stable attached to an inn in upstate New York.

It’s an interesting fascination, this “Mummy! Daddy! I want a pony!” instinct that young girls seem to have. Horses are not cute animals. They’re regal companions who can take you anywhere you want to go. At the same time, they have a mind of their own (I’ve been on more than a few runaway steeds in my lifetime…)

At the end of our night at the raceway, Uncle Bob was up by about $80. Me on the other hand, even with his guidance and example to follow, well, I was down by $40 (can you tell I have a loss limit?)

Picking race horses isn’t my thing. That’s clear, as my dude ranch retirement goals have been replaced by an affinity for mint juleps and flamboyant hats. The Derby is one of my favorite sporting events of the summer, but don’t come to me for your betting advice… I will however point you in the direction of some excellent milliners.

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Learning to Lead

I was a freshman fencing in my very first college meet against Harvard when one of the seniors captains came up to me to say she thought I had “what it took.”

“We’re starting a campaign early to make you Captain for next year,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’ll get you ready.”

I was a relative unknown coming onto my college team. A recruit with national standing and some Junior World Cup experience under my belt, sure. But I wasn’t like a few of my fellow first years, who had been fencing since they were 8, had made several Junior World Championships, and were making podium placements on the senior circuit. Our team’s Wall of Fame included national champions and Olympians galore (one of my classmates would go on to win a silver medal in Beijing.) So to be singled out as the next leader of this historic pack was more than an honor.

(It was terrifying.)

For most of my life, I’ve been pushed into leadership positions. Like in the 8th grade when we had to set-up and run our own businesses, I was unanimously voted CEO. I assumed things like this happened to me because I was always the one most likely to do most of the work or I was the one cheering the loudest. I guess that translated into being the one that cared the most, which was true. I care about the things I do, a lot.

Fast forward to this past fall…

When my boss suggested I apply to participate in a 10 month leadership development course, I was both flattered and skeptical. It felt a lot like when Captain Kim came up to me that day at Harvard — someone I had truck-loads of respect for thought I was worth investing in, worth mentoring into a leader of something special.

At the same time, I was doubtful a course about leadership was for me.  I lead a lot of things, can’t I just learn more from you, Boss? I need to know more about fundraising. How do I ask people for money for stuff? When she told me that my organization would pay if I were accepted, I figured it was an opportunity not to be missed, and filled out my application.

My current reading list.

My current reading list. “The Art of Asking” should be on yours

Going into the course, I saw leadership as a set of qualities you either had or didn’t, qualities that could be nurtured, but not learned. When someone was put into a leadership role, myself included, I figured it was because he/she demonstrated a few more of those qualities, and perhaps was a higher performer than the others in a given set of individuals. In that view, Leaders embody a character-type and are Leaders because they can deliver results. I didn’t necessarily see leadership as a set of skills that could be taught or mastered.

So far, this course has taught me otherwise.

Over the years, I had created awards for leadership and been the recipient of awards for leadership. And yet, acknowledging my many shortcomings, I know I have a lot to learn. Starting with finding answers to a set of simple questions: What really is Leadership? And what is GOOD leadership?

The course started with an inward look. What made me get up in the morning? What was my mission in life? My vision? Was I living my mission and my vision — in my personal life, in my professional life? I was bombarded with questions about who I was, where I had been, where was I going. As a goal oriented person who was good at staying the course, I’m not sure I wholly appreciated this line of introspection and contemplation. I was kinda living my dream. What gives!?! What did this have to do with being a Chief Curator or an Executive Director? Why are you trying to shake my foundation.

Sometimes you need a little shaking to test the strength of your foundation.

But the fog began to lift. To lead well, you need to BE your goal. To BE your goal, you need to know what it is and why you’ve set it. People won’t sign-up to follow you if you’re not genuinely invested in where you’re going.

I learned that Leadership is fundamentally grounded in relationships — with individuals as well as with groups/teams. We all need some help in learning how to manage relationships. Managing relationships is definitely a skill, a steamer-trunk-sized set of skills.

The course, which still has 2 sessions to go, proved revealing on many levels. It forced me to turn an eye to the relationships in my life. I came to value particular friendships even more, and reassign different position to others. I considered how to better negotiate certain workplace partnerships… and continue to consider how to make these more productive, more balanced, more collaborative.

It’s all a work in progress. Leadership is a process — a journey. Thankfully, there are many turns to explore in the road still ahead.

When Santa Gives You Pole Dancing Lessons…

My mother gave me pole dancing classes and this awesome card for Christmas. My mom is cooler than your mom.

My mother gave me pole dancing classes and this awesome card for Christmas. My mom is cooler than your mom.

“Make it bounce!”

There are a few things I’m used to hearing in a fitness group class. Bounce like you’re riding your favorite man is not necessarily one of them. In comparison, my spin instructor Dave tells me not to fear my best… now crank up that resistance!

Lasha, my pole dance class instructor, told me to slap my ass.

It was a Thursday night at fencing when I casually mentioned that I wanted to take pole dancing classes. My friend Madge was in ear shot.

“I’ve been taking classes at S-Factor,” she chirped. “For 10 years. I’ll take you one day and then when you’re hooked, we’ll have to get you a ‘naughty drawer’!”

It’s amazing what you’ll learn about your friends when you think you know everything.

If you’ve been a long-time reader, or if you’re a real-life friend, then you know my mother and you know she’s not your typical buttoned-up, “now, Kathleen, behave yourself,” kind of mother. On my 21st birthday, she bought me my first legal Gray Goose Cosmopolitan (and my second legal Gray Goose Cosmopolitan). Her recent relationship advice sounds like this: don’t go to his place on the 3rd date… show some restraint! Be a Lady. Wait till your 4th…and then make it worth it.

And for Christmas, she bought me pole dancing classes.

Madge was my designated chaperon, and after a flurry of email exchanges, we had settled on a Sunday afternoon.

I rode down to Chelsea, a neighborhood in the city I had watched transition over the years from shady, to “Gay town,” to “familyville,” to home of the High Line and tourist destination. Ambling down 23rd street, with the S-Factor address in my hand, I wasn’t sure what to look for. I’d made my way down this stretch of block before, but couldn’t recall ever seeing what looked like a pole dancing studio. The address brought me to a banal building entrance, sandwiched between a cupcake shop (YUM!) and a bodega/smoke shop. There was no real directory inside the lobby. Was I lost? Could this be any sketchier? This didn’t scream fitness. It screamed house of ill repute.

A pair of other twenty something with long straightened blonde hair and equally confused expressions slipped into the lobby.

“S-Factor-bound?” I asked.

“Yeap!” they replied, and together we figured out what floor and made our way to the elevator and up to the 3rd floor.

The minute the doors parted, a chorus of happy “hellos!” greeted us… along with a mannequin dressed in a g-string with neon pink fringe and light-up, 5-in stilettos.

This probably wasn’t what I was expecting but it was going to be awesome.

I walked into Studio B with Madge as my guide. It was like no other fitness studio I’d been in — there were no mirrors and the only lighting was a single dim spot light in the center of the room and a handful of lamps, draped with red cloths a la your stereotypical bordello. Three poles extended from ceiling to floor and in each corner was a large leather “lap dance” chair.

Clearly, more than my core was going to get a workout.

The class was one of the most liberating and physically challenging 90 minutes I’ve ever been through. Liberating, not because I was free to “feel my curves” or swirl my hips or “do whatever feels good,” but rather, because I had to trust my body to be strong enough to keep me in the air. Like most women, I have a difficult relationship with my body. There’s nothing more terrifying than wearing a bikini in public or taking off my shirt for the first time with Mr. New. But in the low light, with no glass to reflect back on me, and with an acrobatic task at hand, I had to let go of fears of judgement, of self-consciousness, and throw my feet off the floor, and twirl like the pretty, pretty (seductive) princess I wanted to be when I was 5.

In the lighting, I looked this hot and there was no one and no mirror to tell me otherwise.

In the lighting, I looked this hot and there was no one and no mirror to tell me otherwise.

I looked as hot as Demi Moore in “Striptease,” and there was no person or mirror to tell me otherwise.

The next morning, I ached all over, with bruises on my shins the size of bananas, self-inflicted from overly-aggressive approaches to the pole. Few workouts these days inflict any lingering pain. I was sold.

There are reasons to be skeptical about pole dancing your way to fitness. It’s not for everyone, even though I think every woman should try it at least once. Pole dancing is a “feminine movement” movement, not a feminist movement, per say. Taking to the pole is not about upended any power structure between the gaze and the subject of the gaze. There are no men allowed and no one is going to be stuffing dollar bills in my g-string in the near or distant future (even if the extra disposable income would be welcome… #alternativejobskillz.)  It’s not about learning tricks you can bring home to the boudoir, or even about sculpting better abs — though, those are absolutely excellent perks that makes yoga seem soooo 2005.

It’s about not fearing your best, most beautiful, strongest self. I can’t imagine a better post-workout feeling than that. Now, make it bounce!

You Can Have Spin Class, I’ll take the TRX: Collateral Damage of Dating at the Gym

In all my years in the weight room, I’ve only nearly killed somebody once with gym equipment. It was a kettle bell, and it wasn’t officially in use yet — so, I’m going to go ahead and say it was mostly his fault. I was taking the bell off the rack, and as I turned, nearly swung it into the chest of a tall, burly, inked, innocent bystander.

I took an ear bud out to apologize.

With a chest like that, how could I not say hello?

He seemed unfazed — didn’t he realize I had nearly crushed his rib cage? Then again, with those pectoral muscles, the kettle bell probably would have bounced off him and knocked my teeth out instead. That’s one way to have your insurance pay for your invisalign

“Well, now I have to introduce myself,” he said. “I’ve noticed you here before and meant to say hi. You do some pretty intense workouts.”

[Note: Best pick-up line to use on me, ever.]

We introduced ourselves more formally, and chatted a minute or two before we went on our merry ways.

“See you by the TRX tomorrow?” he said.

“Tomorrow’s spin day, but maybe Thursday.”

I had noticed him before too. With a red beard, a half-arm sleeve tattoo depicting a praying angel, and an upper body buff enough to compete with a young Governator, he was hard to miss at the gym — even at my gym, where you trip over a beard, ink, and strapping upper body with every step on your stairmaster.

Thursday rolled around, as did my bosus ball workout by the TRX frame. We made eye contact across the gym, and he swaggered over. He was at school down the block, working on his doctorate of physiotherapy. Being relatively fresh out of nearly a year of physio for a damaged ligament in my knee, I had reason enough to give him my number. A few days later we had plans to meet for drinks.

There’s a lot of statistics and articles about how doing Cross Fit as a singleton leads to more dates. That might be true, but none of these pieces warn you about one simple fact: if things don’t work out with the someone you met while working-out, someone will have to change their gym routine.

This didn’t occur to me till nearly a month in, when I realized there were exactly zero chemistry between us. I wasn’t sure how our mornings would look when chatting on the stretching mat was no longer a kind of foreplay. Would we avoid all eye contact? Wave awkwardly? Would he throw a medicine ball at my head?

“So, like, if things don’t work out, which one of us is going to switch to an after work workout? The only morning you can’t have is spin morning” I asked only half-jokingly, with a kiss as we watched the sunset over the Long Island Sound.

Romance isn’t always my strong point.

In my head, this is what I look like when I'm on the bosus ball...

In my head, this is what I look like when I’m on the bosus ball…

“I’ll just use the gym closer to where I live. I was only coming to this one to watch you on the bosus ball.”

When we broke up, he played the part of the gentleman and kept to his word. We haven’t crossed dumbells or medicine balls at the gym since.

Pre-nups, apparently, are not just for property and bank accounts — they should include all your investments, including the ones you make in yourself… like your fitness routine.

Blogging in the Post Carrie Bradshaw Era

“Your friends must be really boring if you’re contacting me after all this time,” I typed into a gchat box that emerged without warning from a user I had long ago hidden from my chat list.

“Not the case here. All of a sudden I remembered your blog and wondered how you were doing.”

A little over 2 years ago, I had parked my car in an upper west side garage, a stone’s throw from the American Museum of Natural History (read: a neighborhood with premium parking rates) and met a 30-something lawyer for lunch. It was my second date of the day, having already breakfasted with an artist/industrial designer turned tech-recycler (is that a thing? Maybe his official title was Project Manager…). I had been seeing the Designer for about a month by this time, but it was going nowhere about as fast as a black hole. The Lawyer had potential, and he had been appropriately (maybe inappropriately, depending on your degree of conservatism) aggressive in his pursuit. I’d met them both online. I knew to temper my expectations.

After our date, which was a challenge, I went home and ranted on my blog. It was the first time I had ever railed against a guy, and I grouped him in with a string of unsuccessful online dates, belittling him and some guys who were, at the core, decent guys but just a bit oblivious. The Lawyer called me out, and I retracted the post and replaced it with an apology and philosophical definition of what this blog is all about. We didn’t speak again, until this week when he felt the need to apologize (!?!?! Wasn’t I the one who behaved badly?)

It happens with surprising frequency that I go out on a date and for some reason, mostly because he’s done his due diligence and researched me prior to our rendez-vous, my blog comes up. Most never read past the title or the “About Me” section, and so they proceed under particular assumptions.

The Professor, who is 20 years my senior and was a lunch companion earlier this summer: “Now, I don’t want to see our conversation end up in a blog post!”

A guy I think I briefly dated in 2011: “Feel free to write about me all you want. Just make sure you let everyone know how awesome I am.”

My Ex, who is the only ex to get a capital E (I think he actually read the blog, and might still): “I want to make sure you won’t have anything to write about any more.”

What they all assume is that this blog is “tell-all” dating blog. But here’s the thing: if I write about how terrible a date was, or how stupid a guy might be, then to do it fairly, to make it a post that says anything, then I need to turn the lens back on myself. Most single-girl blogs read like this: I went on this bad blind date, I had this one-night stand, this is my hook-up buddy, Why can’t my best guy friend figure out that he should be in love with me.

Writing a typical single-girl dating blog is relatively easy. But I’ve never been a fan of what’s easy.

I want you to read something of substance. Not everything that happens on a date or in the bedroom has substance. And, the simple truth is, some things need to stay inside a relationship.

If single-girl/dating blogs are a by-product of the Sex and the City era, most of us do Carrie Bradshaw a great injustice. When Carrie wrote about the men that breezed through her life, she tried to reason through a moral – didn’t every episode start with a “philosophical” question? What we saw play out in each episode where not only Big’s flaws, but Carrie’s… and in turn, the flaws in romantic relationships and even friendships.

Writing to ridicule men is boring, or at least it’s one tone. And if part of your impetus for blogging is a general frustration with men, perhaps getting hung up on all the ways men fail you is part of why we’re single. The way I see it is: it’s more interesting when you look at why YOU were hurt or disappointed, and what that says about you, your expectations, and your relationship goals. He’s only ½ the problem.

My Lawyer is case in point – he was a decent guy who felt bad sparks didn’t fly. I never gave him a chance, I just attacked him on the internet. “You are entertaining,” he wrote last week, 2.5 years after our infamous lunch. “We should have stayed friendly.”