What’s Your Superpower?

What if you were normal and all your friends were superheroes? And at your wedding reception, your superhero wife’s superhero ex-boyfriend (the Hypnotist) hypnotized her into not being able to see or hear you. He went a step further: when you tried to touch her, her reactions ranged between muscle spasms all the way to stopping breathing if you tried to hold her in her sleep. How would you get her to see you? To know that you didn’t abandon her?

This is a different take on the issue of invisibility in relationships than I’ve written about here and here, more malicious and focused (because everyone else can see the main character except his wife), but just as devastating. Thank you to a blog reader for alerting me to Andrew Kaufman’s marvelous novella, All My Friends Are Superheroes.

Woes of the newly married

The situation in the novella is unlikely, but it got me thinking. How common is it, shortly after being married, to stop truly seeing our spouse? Maybe the rest of you had a glorious honeymoon period, but I did not have a smooth transition to the married state. The actual living with another person was fine. The having someone there to send out to the store when I had an ice cream craving at 10 p.m. (we were living in the Bronx without a car, and I didn’t walk around by myself much after dark) was great, although I gained back the weight I’d lost my first year of graduate school. And other stuff was … enjoyable.

The tough part was the mental adjustment to being married. Being married put me in a different category than my fellow graduate students, none of whom were married. Professors were married. Students lived together or had long distance relationships, or none at all. I was a feminist studying to be a philosophy professor. What was I doing, under 30 and married?

The conventionality of being a wife bothered me. I didn’t think of myself as a conventional person, but there I was, doing the conventional thing. It was odd to feel simultaneously unusual and conventional. I was a little embarrassed to be married. That changed in time and as we got to know other young married couples. But it was an adjustment.

My poor husband. I burst into tears once because he bought whole milk. Was he trying to kill me? Didn’t he care about my family’s history of high cholesterol? How could he be so insensitive? I became obsessed with what patterns of behavior we might be establishing, inflexible about him doing the dishes when I cooked and folding the laundry when I washed, about me never ironing his shirts (back when he still wore ironed shirts), not even to act “wifely” in a self-aware yet ironic way.

All this is to say that I spent much of the first year of marriage wrapped up in my own internal drama (deciding to quit graduate school during that year didn’t help). I don’t know how much I truly “saw” my husband, how much I thought about his experience of our marriage. After 18 years, I think I’m better about that now. And I’ve come to terms with my conventionality — for goodness’ sake, I’m a Midwestern stay at home mom who drives a minivan.

Unusual superpowers 

Even though All My Friends Are Superheroes got me thinking about the heavier stuff above, it isn’t a heavy story. It’s warm-hearted, and charming, and sweet and funny. I loved the superhero names and descriptions. Most of these superheroes can’t fly, and they don’t have superstrength. Their superpowers are ordinary things magnified. Here are a few of my favorites:

If you arrive at a party and suddenly find yourself completely relaxed, there’s a good chance the Stress Bunny is there. Blessed with the ability to absorb the stress of everyone in a fifty-foot radius, the Stress Bunny is invited to every party, every outing.
Her power originates from her strict Catholic upbringing (p.33).

All through her youth, the Battery had two things: an overpowering father and an over-rebellious mind. In combination, these forces gave her the ability to store great amounts of emotional energy and release it in one blinding bolt. But beware: the Battery’s allegiances aren’t to good or evil, but simply against whatever stands in her way. Friend, foe or innocent bystander — the Battery’s emotional energy bursts are unpredictable and she will strike at will (p.32)

Mr. Opportunity knocks on doors and stands there. You’d be surprised how few doors get answered (p.75).

The main character even talks about the difficulties this style of superhero has:

Try it, right now; boil down your personality and abilities to a single phrase or image. If you can do that, you’re probably a superhero already.

Part of the problem with finding your superhero name is that it may refer to something you don’t like about yourself. It may actually be the part of yourself you hate the most, would pay money to get rid of (p.71).

The Big Question

What is your superpower? What is mine? It’s easier to come up with someone else’s superpower first, so I’ll do my husband.

I’d call him Mr. It’ll Work Out, because he lives as if things are going to work out. This superpower only works in ordinary life situations; i.e. it doesn’t prevent people around him from getting or dying from cancer. But he doesn’t get stressed or anxious, not even about new things or experiences. And the thing is, things usually work out. It makes him a great person to have around, and a great leader. I both rely on this calmness and security, and get irritated by it (because it makes my anxiety seem so meaningless).

As for myself, I could be some combination of some superheroes in the book: Mistress Cleanasyougo, the Dancer, with a bit of the Battery thrown in. But I’m going to go on a limb and call myself The Presence. I have a strong physical presence; people always think I’m taller than I am. I have a strong presence on stage when I’m dancing. My face and entire body will radiate my emotional state, which will affect those around me. If you’ve known me awhile, I reveal myself as very passionate about many things, and I can express myself quite forcefully. I’ve got an effective “don’t you even think about doing that” parenting look I can put on. I don’t know if it’s as true these days, but people used to find me intimidating. A few people have told me that, before they knew me, they were scared of me.

There are mitigating factors, of course, but if I’m looking for a trait that has both positives and negatives, I think that’s it.

So, sharing time. What is your superhero name?

Cures for Invisibility?

I shouldn’t write this tonight. I had a nap today. This may sound like a lovely way to spend an afternoon, but when I nap, I wake up queasy and (there is no better way to put it) bitchy. In other words, a terrible time to write a thoughtful blog post, but it’s been over a week since my last one, and that’s way too long.

But I want to put the invisibility thing to bed (since I probably won’t be able to sleep tonight, something needs to go to bed).

Not so fast

I was talking about Calling Invisible Women with a woman in her 70s, who was surprised by one of the themes of the novel (that women in their 50s feel invisible and powerless), because in her experience, women in their 50s were often at the height of their career, powerful in their organizations, courageous in speaking out.

True. I can think of lots of women who fit that description. And that’s part of the solution for the women in the book. They treat their invisibility as a superpower, making life better around them, but at least Clover’s family still doesn’t notice. At the end of the novel, one invisible woman (a Russian mail order bride) travels far to meet Clover and deliver one of the best pep talks ever. I had to bring the book back to the library, so I don’t have the exact quote, but it essentially goes like this: we’ve been acting like we’re Chechnya, but we’re not little victims to be squashed by big, bad Russia (aka pharmaceutical company). With the power of our voices, our stories, our media savvy (or that of our children), our insistence on being heard, we are Russia.

And, indeed, the invisible women get cracking and the ensuing media blitz brings the pharmaceutical company to its knees, many women get their jobs back, and they have lives more vibrant than before they became invisible.

So the woman at the height of her courage and powers is one part of the story of women in their 50s. But so is the woman who drifted along, cutting everyone else slack, making excuses for everyone, and found herself doing all the drudge work and getting no recognition for everything she gave up for the sake of others.

Maybe this is a particularly lively fear for me since I’ve mostly been a stay-at-home mom for 14 years. Yes, I’ve done freelance work, and in-office work for a couple of years, not to mention the novel writing. But it’s so easy to make excuses for everyone else’s stress and not insist on things I might’ve insisted on in the past. To let things slide. Sometimes, this is a kind thing to do, but it can get to be a nasty habit that I can see leading to accepting invisibility.

Invisibility might not always be so bad

My older friend also remembered when men in general stopped noticing her — it was a relief. Freeing, even.

I can see that, and celebrate that, eve. But it’s complicated for me. I no longer get catcalls and rude suggestions from idiots driving by, and I don’t miss them one bit. I no longer have the internal debate: am I in a public enough place to be safe to give that guy the finger? I don’t have to think about what I’m wearing to try to minimize attention. But I’d miss the occasional moment of recognition of me as an attractive woman by cashiers, waiters, etc. Those are nice little moments.

However, I can’t stop myself from growing older. Those moments will go away and I’ll have to rely on my friends to tell me how amazing I look in my turtleneck (which we’re all wearing because we feel bad about our necks). When it happens, I’m sure it’ll be fine. It already is fine. I’ll remember to treat it as something freeing.

We’re back to seeing

I’ve written about seeing before, both the power of being seen and allowing yourself to be seen. I’ve even thrown God into the mix. That’s what this book comes down to: seeing. Making sure that I pay attention, both to my own life and to the people around me. Looking cashiers in the eye when I thank them. Making sure I keep handing over household chores to the kids. Nudging the grandkids to help with dinnertime chores (even though my mother slips up the stairs from the beach so quietly and does almost all the work before we get up to the house). Thanking my husband for doing his regular stuff around the house. Not giving up so easily on relationship issues. Showing what’s really behind the mirage of omni-competence. Paying attention.

Real invisibility

While anyone of any racial or socio-economic group can be taken for granted in their family unit, the novel mostly focuses on middle class, mostly white women. They are a couple of nods to women who the characters recognize are possibly more invisible than they are: hotel maids. Hotel maids here stand for all those people, mostly minorities, often immigrants, who do the crappiest, most thankless jobs, who work long hours for low pay, who are easy to ignore, who many people often prefer to ignore. If I decry invisibility for myself, I have to decry it for them, too. If I pay attention to my own life and my friends’ and families’ lives, I have to pay attention to their lives, too.

One more person to pay attention to

Thank you, Jeanne Ray, for writing this dystopian novel for the middle-aged woman. I don’t think it’ll take off as a subgenre like the YA dystopian novel has, and I’m not sure I’d get into it if it did, but Calling Invisible Women¬†gave me a lot to think about while entertaining me. And that’s always a good thing.