I used to wake up early on Sunday mornings to play pickup basketball with a group of 30-something men in Pittsburgh. This ‘over-thirty’ game comprised a collection of largely successful men still young enough to move without creaking, but old enough to show up to a gym knowing teenage phenoms and college-age athletes were not welcome.
For months, as a 39-year-old, short Jewish guy, nothing about me really stood out. That is, until I brought my wife’s pink water bottle after misplacing my own. Suddenly, I was noticed.
Taking a swig before our first game, one guy sarcastically said, “Nice bottle,” while lacing up his neon-green Nikes. It was the first word he’d ever spoken to me. I wasn’t amused.
“Where’d you get that thing?” asked another man as teams were being chosen, tipped off by the sudden conversation.
“At the store,” I replied, surprised by such clear and overt machismo in response to nothing more than a color from this group of 30-something business men.
When, after several games, a third man during a break in the action said, “You need to get rid of that thing,” I knew that I would not be returning to play with these guys.
After the game, I told my wife about what had occurred, and she encouraged me to keep the bottle, to carry it with me at all times as a defiant, yet subtle, display of opposition to our culture of male domination and machismo.
But there was another reason for her suggestion: I teach elementary and middle school. She thought that carrying the bottle could create occasions to, as an educator, combat those male stereotypes with which my students are being bombarded on a daily basis.
These cultural pressures for males to be dominant, aggressive and tough not only place destructive pressures on young boys, but have tragic implications for women: One out of every six American women have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape, and someone in this country is sexually assaulted every two minutes.
I agreed. The bottle was now mine.
I made sure to place the bottle prominently on my desk each morning, and to carry it around with me, along with my coffee mug, when traveling around the building.
Remarkably, it didn’t take long for the first conversation to be sparked. On Monday morning, only 30 minutes into the school day, a 5th grade boy looked at the bottle in homeroom and asked, “Why do you have a pink water bottle?”
I smiled. “Why shouldn’t I have a pink water bottle?”
“Because pink is for girls,” he replied, laughing.
“No it’s not. I love pink.”
“You like pink?”
“Yeah – it’s a cool color. Stands out. Looks good with black.”
He paused, shrugged his shoulders, and walked away, then walked back. “With black?” he asked.
He thought about this as I held the bottle up against the black backdrop of the bulletin board behind me. “Would make good colors for a football team, eh?”
He didn’t say anything. But he didn’t say no.
I’ve been carrying this bottle around with me for so long now that I myself have come to forget that it’s (remarkably) an unusual site. Which is why I’m always surprised when someone makes a comment about it in public, as happens on occasion. In fact, it happened this morning, hiking through our local park to the coffee shop where I’m now sitting, writing this piece. Carrying it in an outside pocket of my backpack, a group of high school students ran by, likely associated with a sports team. As they passed, one yelled out, “Nice fucking bottle” as the others laughed in the distance.
I cupped my hands and yelled back, “Thanks!”
One of the boys turned his head briefly as he passed to give me a look of surprise. I nodded, and he smiled.
It wasn’t a smile of amusement, nor a smile of disdain. It seemed to be a smile of both recognition and thanks. For what, I cannot say. But in that smile, I felt an inkling of rebellion, of not accepting what we’re told to believe.
A smile that said, Forget those other guys.
Only, it’s those other guys who we must remember as we combat, each in our own ways, those male expectations of machismo that cause so much pain.
For me, it’s carrying a pink water bottle.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoirWhat Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, now out from Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter@David_EHG.