Hole-digging can be a contemplative exercise. Or so I thought. I was taking my time digging the hole, feeling rather zen about it, when the foreman came and roughly grabbed the shovel from me, then began muscling dirt out of the ground. In five minutes he’d done double what had taken me 15. That’s when I learned how to shovel like a man.

I started working in construction over the summer as a teenager. Foundation retrofitting, to be exact. Using the demo hammer, building forms. Talking about philosophy with weedy intellectuals recently spurned by UC Berkeley.

Being the flirt that I am, at any given moment I was reflexively wooing one of the losers I worked with. One of them told me the way he dealt with having my jailbait mojo in close proximity was to think of me as a “hairy little man.”

Every so often an all-lesbian crew would roll by and leer at me out the truck window. It always annoyed me that doing man’s work instantly branded me as a lesbian in their eyes. Isn’t that just more patriarchy at work? Regardless, a lot of lesbians like the trades, like a lot of gay men like hair-styling. Perhaps you can’t fault them for flipping gender stereotyping, but it’s not particularly imaginative.

I’m too imaginative. One of the weird perils of womanhood is the fact that you must assess every man as a possible predator the moment you are alone with him. I think it’s instinct.

I have literally thought “I could take him” when dealing with a small, hungry-eyed man on a remote jungle path in South America. Of course it was an accident that I had ended up alone on the remote jungle path. But the same applies here in the wilds of California.

One time I was swimming across a lake with my friend Mara, a hard-gigging trombonist. I wish I could set this story up well, but all I  remember is that I’d been telling her how I got freaked out on a long run when I saw a pack of creepy guys, and then envisioned how I would fight off their inevitable attack before they hacked me to pieces and I bravely came to terms with my death, and how that had ruined much of my run. Then I was describing to her how when I’m swimming deep clear waters I get a little scared about what could come up from below, but maybe I was letting my imagination run overtime. “What, are you worried about getting gang raped by a school of fish?” she said. I’ve been saving that hilarious line — perhaps for a song?

But I am lucky. I’ve never been assaulted, though I’ve had some near misses and have been entirely too charitable when dealing with men with obvious substance abuse problems.

The thing about womanhood is that we are the givers of life. And that fucking scares the shit out of men. We fucking make it, suckle it, raise it. Our vaginas scare them so much, they want to brutalize them. Control them. In milder forms of misogyny, merely commoditize them.

No one has a monopoly on oppression. Human history is filled with it. I wonder what the next one will be, or if it will merely cycle back to older forms. And crying about oppression just brands you as a sad sack. (I fucking hate myself when I am being a sad sack, like right now.) No, there is an advantage to oppression of any sort. Assuming you survive it, you can mount a sneak attack.

I haven’t watched the TV show Survivor much. But I have caught the odd episode. One year I stumbled on the finale, where it comes down to three survivors, then two, then one. There was an annoying man, a modern-day Edward G. Robinson, who had manipulated his way to the end. In his confessional shots to the producers, he boasted about how he’d played everyone against each other. But when it came down to him against the two women, and both of the women won final two, the look on his face was priceless. He’d been had. Classic hubris. He assumed all along that as a man he directed the action and the women were useless underlings. In fact they had carried him to the end, cleverly drafting on his horrible personality, using his brute strength, letting him take the heat for everything.

“To be born woman is to know/that we must labour to be beautiful,” Yeats wrote in my favorite poem. Yes, we can be hard. We can be terrible people, women can. But just as the horror of 400 years of slavery beckons through the portal of Black gospel and makes it so haunting, there is a truth to womanhood that nothing can erase. It is the truth that stares you in the face, the softness, the weakness that is stronger than strength.

I just read Euphoria by Lily King. If my boys hadn’t just shattered my iPad I could quote from it. The writing is modern, which is as it should be because then it disappears as you hurtle into the story of three anthropologists from the 1930s studying strange tribes of New Guinea. The conceit of this brilliant novel is that even as we study other cultures, we are hampered by our own culture’s pathologies. Blind to their cruelty, we rationalize them. No culture is perfect. But at the heart of the mystery of naked apes is the ugly truth that the male of the species is violent and unpredictable, and that Western culture, for all its technological imperialism and faux meritocracy, commoditizes women.

Having brothers probably made me tomboyish. To be honest it was my competitive nature. We were like birds in a nest, just short of shoving each other out to fall to our deaths. When my brother got a train set for Christmas, I was mesmerized, and he was too young to really care about it. So it became mine and gave me joy until young adulthood. When he got interested in cars, I got my neighbor’s complete idiot’s guide to rebuilding a VW and rebuilt the ’69 van I’d just spent months living in after dropping out of college.

That led to a stint helping an old carcinogen-pickled Hungarian who was building his body shop down on San Pablo brick by brick. I remember working on my van down there. It might have been the second van I owned, after the first was totalled. I rebuilt that engine too, and it blew up in Richmond, cancelling a road trip before it started. But anyway, I’ve never forgotten how I was under the van, lying on a dolly, working on the engine. I rolled out from under and got up. As I walked toward the office, Nick, that was his name, intercepted me and “honked” both my breasts with his old greasy hands. It was a real shock. I looked down and saw that I had two big round black smudges on my T-shirt where my breasts had rubbed up on the engine. But I just felt crest-fallen. Here I was, proud of the progress I was making on this engine, thinking I was one of the guys. And there they were, just waiting to honk my teenage tits.