A couple of days ago I started trying out this thing, vaguely related to my yoga practice, wherein I am basically supposed to “speak softly or medium-soft” for 40 consecutive days. There are a lot of ways to interpret this directive, which I like to think was translated from Gurmukhi and originally said something like, “Try not to spend all your time just going off on shit.”
The night before the challenge was to start I went to dinner with my boyfriend at his friend Mark’s house. I get along fine with Mark, but Mark had a friend there, and right away, I could tell Mark’s friend probably didn’t know many women who have big mouths and if he did he probably hoped they would use them for eating fro-yo or maybe blowing him.
We were listening to Mark’s iPod, and Jimi Hendrix came on and Mark said how much he loved him, and I said something like, “There is nothing more boring to me than listening to a dude just play a guitar.” I felt like the key words here were “to me.” Also, Jimi Hendrix has plenty of fans. He doesn’t need me. But apparently what I said was quite shocking because my Mark’s friend started going off about how mean I was, and I ended up apologizing for saying I didn’t like a musician that everyone already likes, and then had to say all of that additional drivel, like of course I respect him. (Duh.) Then, later, Mark’s friend was like, “What music do you like?”—a question I actually stooped low enough as to answer, as if I needed to prove that I was not, in general, a hater of music.
I spent the rest of the night silently swearing to myself that I would never again be the only woman anywhere, ever, and also, thinking about how great everything was going to be after 40 days of mastering speaking softly. I would be so able to control speaking that I would be particularly adept at controlling it around those who didn’t want me to speak, more or less, and could just secretly have all my (mean) opinions and keep them to myself and never be forced to engage with anyone like Mark’s friend ever again.
In the car on the way home, I took up precious last moments of not having to speak medium-soft to explain to my boyfriend why it was so offensive to me that Mark’s friend had said I was mean, to my face. I talked for an hour straight about how I heard men say things I didn’t like all the time, and I'd learned to just sit there politely, whereas if I ever said anything that a man didn’t like, I had to hear about it. My whole life, I told my boyfriend, I’ve wondered: am I an asshole, or are people just really sexist?
I woke up Sunday, the first day of “the challenge”, and the first words out of my mouth were, “It is already so fucking hot,” accompanied, of course, by a very put-upon sigh, as if a summer in the Sierra Foothills were just torture. Those were the first words out of my mouth on the second day as well. Luckily, on the third day, I woke up to rain, and said gleefully, “It’s raining,” but when it abruptly stopped a few minutes later, I said, “What the fuck, where’d the rain go?”
These bitter weather reports were, at least, only uttered to myself, or to a captive audience of one. I saved my much more intense negativity for the public. I had expected this exercise would be difficult. But the number of times in a day I said things like, “I can’t stand her” or, “Well, I wouldn’t worry about that because he’s an asshole/dumb/a liar anyway,” or just, “Christ almighty, are you fucking serious?” was truly astonishing. I remembered the sense of peace I’d felt after the adrenaline rush of being so righteously mad at Mark’s friend, and how I felt that I was going to change and therefore not say un-medium soft, dismissive things about classic rock musicians or anyone else and then suddenly slip into life as if it were a body pillow. But in practice, it wasn’t that easy. It also wasn’t necessarily that hard, since the point of this 40-day journey was not to suddenly cease saying such things but to make a very earnest attempt to refrain from doing so, and, at the end of the day, to write in a journal about the times you messed up.
For three days straight, journaling consisted of writing the date, and then, underneath it: “Everything I say is not medium-soft except for one or two things.”
I think it’s hilarious when we have the realization that we do something and believe that realization is going to somehow help us stop doing it.
Meanwhile, I was putting together a trivia team, a team of all-stars to beat a team which had won at the Tuesday night trivia game I go to, every single night, for about six straight weeks. Every person on this annoyingly, perpetually winning team is very good, which, in my opinion, goes against the spirit of trivia, or, certainly, against my (kindly) habit of playing with people who may lack deep trivia knowledge but are otherwise wonderful people. That’s part of the game. But I'd had it with this particular team winning every week and I told myself that if they were going to play their superteam game, I would play it better. I enlisted my friend Heather, who is very good. I told her about my trivia superteam plan. She was all over it. Then I got my friend’s dad Fred to play, and then, for a fourth, my boyfriend’s uncle, Don.
My boyfriend asked me if the entire idea of putting together a trivia superteam might be against my “speaking softly” project. He was right. It almost certainly was. But I was in too deep now. Invitations had been made. People were coming. There was no turning back.
Tuesday night we assembled the superteam challengers: Heather, Fred, Don, and me. Heather is about my age, younger by just enough that when she says things like, “I think I’m going deaf,” I can say, “I am deaf” to scare her, even though I am not even remotely deaf. That said, my eyesight seems to have taken a bit of a nosedive, but we don’t have to go into that. Heather is from Philadelphia and even if we didn’t like each other we’d be friends because she is the only person in town who talks louder and faster and complains, humorously (always humorously), as much as I do. Fred and Don are not real names, and they are also not very good ones, so, if you’re picturing a Fred or a Don, feel free to picture someone else. Fred is about 60 and Don is about 60 as well; Fred is sort of long hair-long beard weird and Don is no hair-no beard weird.
The enemy trivia superteam was missing a regular member, an acquaintance of mine. The remaining members are all women and I don’t really know anything about any of them, except one of them has short hair and is pretty and very fashionable, especially for this very fleecy, very river shoe-y part of the world. She is the only one I remember because she is the only one I ever talked to, and all I remember from our conversation is that she seemed to have extraordinary knowledge about the history of trains. Anyway, it didn’t matter, because they were going down.
Said more softly: we were going to valiantly readjust the power structure of Tuesday night trivia. Is that more medium-soft? I don’t think it is, even.
The trivia master is an adorable 20-something girl named Zoe. Whenever I play I am forever turning to my companions and saying “Isn’t Zoe so funny?” or “Isn’t Zoe so cute?” and I am sure everyone on all the other teams, except for perhaps the enemy superteam where they discuss trains, is doing the same thing. My favorite thing about Zoe is that she’s been doing this every night for a while and I think, even though she likes it, the job must be a little exhausting: sometimes when she’s announcing the winners she’ll just start asking questions again. But young Zoe is winning even in her errors. As she got started it occurred to me that if everyone were like Zoe it would be extremely easy to speak medium-soft and how it was clearly everyone else’s behavior, and nothing lacking in me, that made it so hard.
So the way it goes: Zoe asks 21 questions. You write them down. In between answering you discuss questions you’re stumped on. The last question involves a number, and in the event of a tie, whoever is closest wins. The tables are close together, and even though they play loud music in between questions to muffle the sounds of your debating neighbors/competitors, you still write potential answers down on paper, instead of speaking them out loud, to prevent any inadvertent sharing of answers.
Heather, “Don," “Fred" and I got off to a good start, with answers like pancreas, You’ve Got Mail, Bulgaria, and (Thomas E.) Dewey. Then Zoe asked, “Toby Keith, Carrie Underwood and Garth Brooks are all from what state?” and we went into a tailspin. Heather guessed Tennessee, and I was inclined to agree with her, and we were about to write it down when Don, staring off into space as if he were getting a secret message from the trivia underworld, said, "Oklahoma." We went with it. At about the midpoint, there was just one we were unsure about. More importantly—well, not really more importantly, but I should pretend it was more important if I ever want to prioritize my emotional health over instant gratification—I was feeling pretty medium-soft. I wanted to win, sure, naturally, just like I always do when I come to trivia, but mostly, I was just enjoying myself, just like I always do at trivia, except perhaps more so because My Trivia Superteam had no dead weight on it.
“If you called a store and said ‘Do you have Prince Albert in a Can?’ to what product would you be referring?” Zoe asked. “Tobacco,” Fred wrote, and we all sighed with pleasure and relief because none of us knew it. (Don told me three days later that he did know it, but he was just letting Fred write something down because apparently Heather and I were hogging the pen.) I was the only one who knew You’ve Got Mail, by the way. Heather raised the possibility that it was Sleepless In Seattle, but I told her I was 100 percent positive, though I definitely appreciated her playing Devil’s Advocate, as one never knows when they are feeling positive about an answer which is actually wrong.
Next, Zoe asked, “Who did Dale Cooper address his tapes to in Twin Peaks?” This was to be my great frustration of the evening. Despite having watched the entire series twice and written a long, annoying, useless and pretentious paper on it in college, I could not for the life of me remember the answer. Don and Fred had no idea. Heather wrote down Laura Palmer, and I let her, in case this was right, but I knew that Agent Cooper had addressed the tapes to some secretary, a sort of Miss Moneypenny figure. My mind would not find the right road to the answer, even though it was definitely in there.
The answer to the next question was The Metamorphosis. We were kicking ass. I was still medium soft-ish except for saying stuff like, “Fuck. What the fuck was her fucking name?” But at least that wasn’t mean, or directed at anyone. Besides, at this point, I was working on overt hostility, and I would wait until the end of the month to fine-tune things.
The next was “the audio question," a regular trivia night feature. They play a song, and we have to identify the artist. It had been playing for about a 20 seconds when Don announced, “I got it,” and wrote it down Golden Earring. But this was wrong. It could not be right. “No no no,” I said. On the piece of scratch paper, I wrote down “Molly Hatchett, 'Flirting with Disaster.'” In frantic whispers, I begged Don to consider that I might be right. The crux of my argument was that Golden Earring was the band that sang that terrible song "Beds Are Burning," and what we’d just listened to could not be the same band.
Fred and Heather wouldn’t even entertain my theory. They both just said, “We believe him,” and continued with their frantic efforts to get an answer for our other problem questions: “What was the palindromic name of the main character of Holes?” and “What dance was inspired by James Brown and kung fu movies?” The character was on the tip of our tongues, and we had no idea about the dance.
But I wouldn’t stop hammering away at this Golden Earring thing. I had seen it happen so many times, when someone seems to have authority over an answer, and everyone feels good about believing them and does not take into account the minority position that actually ends up being right. I myself had been the Don in this situation, while someone else had been me. Don was older than I was and understood to be a bit of a ringer here. But I just wanted to be heard, and I felt that no one was listening to me. So I kept trying. And then, Fred started to get like, actually, really nasty.
“God,” he said. “Would you give it up already? It’s not your era. I mean, you have no idea what you’re talking about.” It might not look that bad on the page but his tone was incredibly nasty and dismissive, and I also don’t really know him that well. My adrenaline went up sharply. He went on, and I can’t remember what he said, but he got meaner, and more personal, and I felt hot rage inside and then, I exploded at him. I was so angry I can’t remember what I said. I may have said would you please shut the fuck up and let me fucking talk, but I am not sure at all. At any rate, whatever I said was not only not medium-soft, it was the worst kind of verbal explosion I’d had in probably months, and as I continued to berate Fred for berating me, I began to hate this 40-day undertaking. I was never going to speak medium soft and I didn’t even want to. There was a cruel world out there and no one was going to get anywhere in that world by speaking medium-soft. Speaking medium-soft made about as much sense as covering yourself in sugar and leaving yourself for the ants.
It came to pass that I learned that Agent Cooper addressed his reports to Diane. (DUH!) The palindromic name of the main character of Holes is Stanley Yelnats (also duh), and the dance is breakdancing. (Whatever. I had no idea.) Oh, finally, I was deeply, deeply wrong about everything Golden Earring-related. The band I was so sure was called Golden Earring was actually called Midnight Oil (DUH!!!). Don had even pointed to his ear and said in a stage whisper, “the guy from the band you’re talking about WEARS a Golden Earring” while I was on my rant about how his answer was wrong, but I had been too wound up to notice.
We all went out afterward and about every half an hour I overheard Fred telling the story about the Golden Earring thing. I don’t know how nasty the story was because as I heard any keywords like “Golden” “earring” “Sarah” “Jesus Christ” or “Wouldn’t shut up” I would get well out of earshot, and I decided that although it was a small town and I would never be able to avoid him, I would engage with Fred as little as possible.
That night, in the Facebook forum about the 40-day speak medium-soft challenge, I saw that one of my fellow practitioners had written that she tended to speak very harshly or even yell when she felt she wasn’t being heard. She said she was starting to realize that perhaps sometimes she wasn’t meant to be heard, or she just wasn’t going to be heard. I got tears in my eyes when I read that. It made me feel sad about how easy it is for me to get mad, or hurt, and how it seems unlikely that my temper will ever let up. It made me think that maybe it’s better to just accept whatever level of asshole you are instead of constantly feeling bad that you can’t make yourself become much of a better person.
I am sticking with the 40-day thing, even though I suck at it. We came in second in trivia, mostly because for the tie-breaker question I said that the pencil with an eraser was invented in 1906. (Weren’t Ticonderoga pencils marked 1906?) And the team that won—some group of tourists no one had ever seen before and will never see again—were way closer to the correct answer, 1858. The enemy superteam we wanted to beat didn’t even place. I was mildly happy, but I wondered why no one on my team had argued about the 1906 thing. What a bunch of assholes.
Photo via nathaninsandiego/flickr.
Previously: An Interview With Author Judith Frank