Notes from Strange Men

Tundra and popcorn


I’m participating in #signingforbookstores, an incentive to help independent bookstores who have been massively hurt by the pandemic. For a limited time, if you would like to give ROAD OUT OF WINTER to someone (or yourself) this holiday season, I’ll send you a signed bookplate and bookmark, free. It’s a safe way to get signed books right now.

Notes from Strange Men

A few weeks ago, when it was very cold and snowing, my family went to the zoo. The zoo on a bitter cold day was a good choice in the time of COVID. It was nearly empty, so deserted I felt comfortable getting hot chocolate and a big bag of kettle corn for my son. We normally don’t eat food in public these days, not wanting to take our masks off, even for minutes. 

But there were so few people around in the open, freezing air, we ate from the bag of popcorn, spending some time in front of the grizzly bear, who sat like an overstuffed velvet doll, staring. Eventually my partner pointed out: it wasn’t me the bear was interested in; it was my popcorn. 

A keeper came up to the enclosure: Are you hungry? Ready for dinner? She was, and the bear—her name is Tundra—was about to hibernate for the winter. We won’t see her again for awhile. 

As a general rule, I tend not to respond to men who are strangers who write to me. I’m not sure what compels a man to angrily contact a stranger after reading their article in a newspaper or magazine, an article which—perhaps especially for freelancers like me—the writer likely did not choose to write, but was assigned. We didn’t have say over the headline or most of the final edits, and we certainly weren’t paid enough to respond to a steady stream of blustering strangers. Do men do this to other men?  The need to weigh in seems like a kind of entitlement—and/or free time—I and most of the women, queer, disabled, or parent writers I know just don’t have.

I don’t list my email online, a recommendation I learned from a journalist who is a woman. My website has a contact form only, and I generously block on all social media. 

At the same time, it’s important to leave some channels open. Sources need to be able to reach out. The commenter with a sincere note, the student with a good question, the reader with a need for true assistance (or the editor with a job offer), need to be able to get through. 

But just like the grizzly, who seemed harmless but is in fact, an animal capable in no uncertain terms of bringing death, strange notes can escalate. Like many women and nonbinary folk, I have been stalked, my life threatened, my apartment googled. Men don’t seem to realize (maybe some do) that even getting an unsolicited missive from them—even seeing a stranger’s name pop up—can be scary.

More often than not, enflamed attacks have much more to do with the stranger than you: you just happened to wander by his cage. But that is cold comfort if, like me, you wake up the morning after a piece you write to make rent is published to twenty-five messages from unfamiliar men.

Small ways you can protect yourself? In case you don’t know: Set your preferences to only show notifications from people you follow. That way you’re not alerted each and every time your name happens to be mentioned or a strange man tries to get your attention. You don’t need that. I don’t babysit social media threads, and I don’t feel the need to respond to everything.

Say it with me: you don’t have to respond to everything. It is a pandemic, and even when it’s not, you’re likely keeping things together with nothing but your bare, scratched arms. 

If you do respond—for example, on Twitter—make sure you take a screenshot of an offending post rather than retweeting it. Avoid leading someone’s followers to you or giving them more attention or followers. And if you respond via email, consider using a form response when it’s warranted—another tip I picked up from a woman writer.

I don’t have the time, but even more than that, I don’t need to be derailed. Being a single parent in a pandemic, a freelance journalist, a novelist, a disabled person in this world … a person in this world is enough. I said my peace, and if a stranger wants to say his, he can try writing his own article. Good luck getting that headline through the second editor.   

Recipe for The Best Popcorn Ever 

Popcorn is my favorite snack. I come by my love for it honestly: I spent the first four years of my life next door to a family farm that grew it commercially. One of my first memories is of my parents’ air popper overflowing onto the kitchen linoleum. The first present my partner gave me was an antique green glass bowl for popcorn, from an Ohio glass company, after I broke my cherished one.

Mainly because I didn’t have a microwave for many years, I learned to make popcorn on the stove. Here’s my recipe for the best popcorn ever. This is not exact, obviously, so consult the instructions on your bag of popcorn kernels for measurements. 

Heat vegetable oil on medium in a big pot on the stove. Add kernels (I know I said look at the instructions, but I always add more than it says). You’ll want a lid on your pot, partially covering it so steam can escape. Shake the pot so the heat distributes. Take it off the stove when it’s been a second or two since you last heard a pop. 

Add melted butter, salt, and—here’s where it gets Appalachian and witchy but stay with me—nutritional yeast and dried dill. Nutritional yeast is a wonder snack my midwives introduced to me. Adding dill is something the mother of one of my child’s best friends, an artist and teacher, inspired me to try. Together with these additions, popcorn is perfect, a warm and satisfying snack (or let’s be real, dinner) for these nights of cold and early dark. 

Let yourself be comforted and don’t email back.