Brave on Paper

We’re all brave somewhere. I’m brave on paper.

A woman friend of mine recently confronted a man on an airplane. This seems equal parts courageous and unadvisable. You’re already sardined into the equivalent of a flying Dairy Whip canister with nothing between one another but flimsy pieces of plastic and a bag containing six off-brand Fishie crackers. Stirring it up with a fellow traveler at 30,000 feet with nowhere to go but in the sausage casing of a bathroom does not feel like the smartest move.

My friend was making the onboarding slog, stalled in the aisle by the dozen or so seats that pass for “first class” when she heard a man talking loudly on his phone, laughingly disparaging Caitlyn Jenner. The man kept referring to her as “Bruce.” He lamented the fact that “he’d” lost “his” elite athlete status because of all the “junk” in “his” body. My friend never described what this man looked like. She’s too classy to pick the low-hanging insult fruit. But I’m not, and I secretly pictured him as a wheezing, sweaty, ruddy-faced guy with a knee brace and a diabetic alert medical bracelet who wouldn’t know elite athleticism if it were giving him mouth to mouth resuscitation.

My friend is strong in real life, not just in this one moment. My friend stands on the right side of history, especially when it’s unpopular. She owned her convictions before there were hashtags and branded water bottles to make us feel better about our values. My friend is the kind of woman who cuts her way through the world like a river—steady, sure, unstoppable. Later on when she relayed this incident, my friend admitted she was scared and conflicted; she was afraid of remaining silent, afraid of not.

“I’ll tell you one thing that Caitlyn Jenner ISN’T doing now that HER body is the right one,” my friend said to the man, “she isn’t screaming at the top of her lungs into her cell phone and pretending no one can hear her.”

The man paused, blinked, somehow dumbfounded that another person had bothered to call him out on his obnoxious and noxious conversation. In the movie version of this, everyone around my friend breaks out into applause, the man’s fellow passengers relegate him to that wretched, lone jump seat at the back of the plane next to the bathroom, correction, next to the bathroom with the clogged toilet, and my friend gets upgraded to fly first class free for life on this airline, along with a glass of champagne and a box of Belgium chocolates. In reality, the man just stared as if the line of people had suddenly turned into a line of flamingos and my friend squared her shoulders and shuffled along to her seat. End of scene. Roll credits.

Brave in real life, even if she didn’t feel it, even if she wished she didn’t have to be. Her example is one I will hold onto in the hopes that it might help me get my brave on offline—to foil the mugger, to stop the wedding, to volunteer for the Mars colony, to attempt bangs (again). Because street courage feels particularly urgent (and daunting) today, and I find myself awed by the ordinary people, like my friend, who willingly put themselves in the crosshairs of conflict, tension, derision, straight-up-naked-racism-sexism-homophobia-every-flavor-of-haterade. Most of us have this image of bravery colored by reality TV show swagger. It’s the inflated “go big or go home” bravado that makes you think, well shit, if I’m not going nose to nose with a Neo-Nazi crapbag dressed like a Tom McCann shoe salesman from 1985, I’m not doing it right, am I? I’m hiding out waiting around for the all clear. I can barely bring myself to correct the barista when she gets my name wrong on the coffee cup, blowing the whistle on corporate malfeasance feels like a reach.  

Brave on paper feels convenient and safe, qualities that are missing from tales of epic heroics. I can shred the pages. I can drown the notebooks. I can delete sentences and entire files. I can choose just how much or how little of my pink, soft underbelly to turn out to the world. I can not read the comments. I can make the place where I show up a cozy lounge, like the sexy, fun common spaces of those big tech companies, the ones with coconut water on tap and meditation hammocks and Skittles dispensers and infinity pools that rejuvenate your organs. Or I can make it my arena, my Main street, my airplane aisle. It’s the difference between feeling brave on paper and being it: showing up as your rough hewn self with your raw truths, without knowing the outcome, refusing retreat. We’re all brave somewhere.

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