Ten years ago I worked for the US Census. It’s funny that it could be an entire ten years ago, that I did that, but I keep seeing people around with the Census binders, so it must be true. For my job, I had to go around (with the binder) and check every single address in downtown Olympia to see if anyone lived there. Picture me walking into a Chinese restaurant and asking if the restaurant is a residence. I like to talk to strangers, but somehow it was difficult to muster the authority to make people listen to me quickly and answer me directly, especially when the question was sort of absurd and bureaucratic. My way of getting into conversations with strangers has usually been to open up the door and then just see where things go.
I was young and spacey and probably would have been happy to just see where things went conversationally with every business proprietor in downtown Olympia, but it turned out the Census Bureau didn’t want to pay me for that. My supervisor, Marian Gunderson, accompanied me on one of my rounds, and after watching my approach, grabbed my binder and exhibited the proper way to get someone to listen and respond quickly. She said, “You just look at them in the eyes, say what you need, and they give it to you.” It blew my mind. I didn’t know it was possible to be so direct. Marian had led the training sessions for my group of Census workers, and had shown that same clear eyed command throughout. I spent most of my time in the training marveling at her composure, and at how efficiently she got everyone in the room to listen to her and do what she wanted. As the training material was pretty simple, I managed to do what she wanted, and still have time to examine how she pulled it off. She was tall and blonde and beautiful, and her communication style was absolutely confident, never self effacing, and friendly. I think that she was a pretty significant model for me of a vision of powerful femininity.
Marian and I became friends, and would hang out now and then, after the Census project was through. She was more than ten years older than I was, and we lived very different lifestyles, but we had interesting conversations, so I guess that is what she got out of hanging with me. I remember that we took a walk around town once, and she carried the keys to her fancy car around in her hand, in a way that seemed to me, back then, like she was on a leash. She told me about how she had lived in Utah for some years, and spoke vaguely about a guy who she had been involved with there, but she always avoided saying his name. I asked her directly one time what his name was, just because it seemed funny to always avoid it, and she made it clear that she did not want it to be known. The more she talked about the guy in Utah, the more strange the situation seemed. I think that he had a wife, and that Marian had lived with the guy and his wife. I don’t know if their relationship was physically intimate or not. She said that she lived with them, and the guy would educate Marian on herself, and on the contradictions inside of her. She bought a really expensive bicycle, and when she brought it back to the house, the guy said, “you bought that bike because your father didn’t love you enough.” I was incredulous that she could think that this was a reasonable assessment, but she told me that she agreed that it was true, and that was why she had ended up buying herself the fancy white sedan with tan leather seats.
Marian and I went to see Celebration, the Dogme film. After the movie she talked about how someone in her family had adopted a little girl, and how they were not good parents to the girl at all, and how the girl was really suffering. She said that she looked at the situation and thought, “Another little girl gone.” I asked Marian if she thought she could reach out to the girl at all, as a family member, and offer some support or something. She didn’t seem to see this as an option. The hopelessness of her response really surprised me. To me she seemed so strong and capable. We went some months without being in touch, and then this guy who was sort of her boyfriend called me up and invited me out to have dinner with the two of them. He said that Marian was really depressed, and not doing very well. I went to dinner at their place way on the outskirts of town. I remember it being carpeted with tan carpet, and only half decorated. The dinner was very awkward. The boyfriend told me, either that night at dinner or on the phone, that he had invited me because he was worried about her, and that I seemed like someone who cheered her up.
The whole exchange of my relationship with Marian was so strange. I really did learn a manner of confidence and poise from her, which I use in my life on a daily basis. If I hadn’t gotten to know her better, I would have kept on believing that the power of her communication style emanated directly from an internal core of self assurance. But it didn’t. The structure under the surface was more complex than that. And here’s what is most interesting to me about the whole thing: if I had met her at the age that I am now, how would she have looked to me? What has ten years done to my perceptive abilities? My hunch is that I would more quickly be able to see her dark side, and I am a little bit proud of the fact that I have learned to see more clearly. However, the trade off for those new focal powers is that nowadays there is little to no chance that I would ever spend an afternoon wandering around wide eyed with a funny lady who I met at the Census.