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Petra is a native New Yorker who began writing quirky songs (in Japanese) with the weekend band she started, Gaijin à Go Go. In 2003, the band was signed by Sony Music Japan, and became overnight hit on the international pop scene. They were featured on NPR’s The World, on Japans' Tonight Show (Fuji TVs' Waratte Itamo), in The Japan Times and the cultural magazine: ブラウンズブックス (translation: Barfout!).

This story became the subject of short film she wrote and produced, Xmas Cake—This American Shelf-life, nominated at The Tribeca Film Festival in 2019. The film is now the basis for her forthcoming autobiographical novel. She holds a BFA from Cornell University and is a scholarship winner from the Aspen Writers Foundation. She currently writes for her newsletter, podcast, and live storytelling series The B/sidera movement to reimagine a meaningful groove in life “after hitting the top forty.” 

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An Awkward Game of Cards  

By Petra Hanson © 2017-19 The B/Sider


I was 39, going on Peter Pan. I still shopped at Forever 21 and ate Fig Newtons on the subway and called it dinner. So what if none of these habits had ever landed me a husband? I wasn't motivated to change. My older sister mated early in life. She'd married, bought a house in Maine and had two little girls to complete the fairytale. If I lived by tradition, she was winning.

But I didn't. I had instead built a career as a fashion designer and founded a band that had made it in Japan. In the eyes of her daughters, I was the cool auntie — the master of the universe. That's all that mattered.

Or so I thought.

Maine in January is a tundra of wind and ice. It's no place for someone with shitty circulation and an allergy to fleece. But there I was, stepping off a bus into a violent storm. Shards of sleet stabbed my cheeks. Why my family had migrated to the North Pole remained an unanswered question, due to brain-freeze. My mom and sister bought houses next to one another, to stay warm, I guess.

As a party of just me, I made long treks from New York City to see them, usually in summer.  But I'd recently suffered a breakup with the one, the fuck-tard who nearly ruined my life.  I was looking forward to sitting by a fire in wooly socks while I hate-ranted about my ex. I'd come to them seeking comfort and approval.

"Let's play cards!" said my niece during our first round of hot chocolate. Card games weren't my thing; I wasn't blessed with the luck or skill required to play well. But I didn't want to refuse my six-year old niece.

She suggested we play Old Maid. I was relieved, because that game was a no-brainer. One by one, she handed out the scrappy deck. But before she was done, her dad interrupted. He scooped up the cards and shoved them back in the box. It was an abrupt, non-democratic move, which felt odd in an otherwise NPR-listening household. My sister looked away, and said nothing.

My niece tilted her head, her blond curls flopped to the side, as she asked her dad, "Why can't we play?"

"How about another game?" he replied with a kind, but firm smile. My brother in law has never been a guy who needs to call the shots. Yet this time he used his dad power. It wasn't up for discussion.

The Good. The Bad. And The Humiliated. 

My niece looked defeated, placing the deck back on the shelf of used toys. I too was disappointed we wouldn't get to play an antiquated game that required zero skill. The only object of Old Maid is to avoid the stupid Old Maid card, who is essentially an unmarried cat-lady on the verge of growing a full mustache.

That's when it hit me. I was the sister who still didn't have a husband. My stomach sank.

Oh. That's why we can't play it.

I touched my top lip, checking for signs of growth. My pulse slowed down to a halt. I felt dizzy with questions. Is this what my my family thinks of me? Have I just been demoted because I'm no ones' wife? Will my nieces now grow up believing I'm a failure?

I held my breath.

We settled on a game of Crazy Eights, but I went someplace else in my mind, to a place of shame and disbelief. I knew my family didn't mean to hurt me; this was their way of saving me from humiliation. It would have never occurred to me to be offended in the first place — I hadn't given my shelf-life a second thought. But knowing they pitied me, was humiliating. I gripped the deck of cards as my hands began to shake. I swallowed and fought the tears.

The Sham Sandwich

Back home in trendy Brooklyn, I began to unravel. An awkward game of cards put a new channel on my radar. Once I tuned in, the evidence was everywhere that as a cool-chick-of-my-own-making, I'd expired.  

"No record label is going to sign a 40 year old woman..." mansplained the rocker, who appeared confident that at 50, with a full beer gut and thinning hair, his music career was safe.

"She's an old bag. We need to get somebody younger."  Ordered the male executive director of a fashion company at our weekly meeting. The woman in question was a talented designer in her early 50's who's work had shaped the brand and kept them in business.

"I don't want to play for an audience of women over 40." Sneered a fellow male musician who was also...ehem...over 40.

Even worse, were all the fashion magazines — the required reading of my trade. I was used to flipping through cover to cover features of models under 18, with an occasional nod to older women. But suddenly every headline seemed to include the subtext that my gender wasn't allowed to age. Look Hot Over 35 felt like a consolation prize. Great. I get to stab my frown with Botox and wear scarves to hide my *iffy* neck.

Here's the irony — my life still looked a lot like it did in my twenties. Except time had turned me into a rock star, who dated MY OWN groupies, instead of being one. There is a BIG difference. But knowing this didn't stop my mojo from melting into a sad puddle no one wanted to mop up.

I bought into the whole sham. In fact I ate the sham sandwich, because it what our culture serves my gender on a platter.

When I grow up, I want to be an older woman. 

When you run out of road, just build a new one. The labels and mainstream stigma probably won't disappear tomorrow. But I've found consolation in knowing I'm part of the collective experience of our time, and we are calling bullshit.  Just a few months ago, my hero in comedy, Tina Fey, spoke at The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment Breakfast. Her powerful speech blew the secret bitch-whistle to spread the word, "What’s next for me? What is my role in this business going to be once nobody wants to grab me by the pussy anymore?

Married or not — Here we are. 

In our post woke world, Old Maid, the family card game should be obsolete. But it's not. Today, you can buy it on Amazon for $7.99. Or you can learn how to play it by watching videos on YouTube.  No one cares.  

Look, my goal isn't to disrupt the children's card scene, but I have to wonder about the next generation growing up mindlessly playing along a game that shames women for not finding husbands before it's too late. I would, however, like to teach kids how to play a very different game — the one I call GOT IT MADE. The rules are:  Don't get stuck with a rich old perv who cant stop groping other women, aka The Trump card. The safer bets are faces of all the women and trans women who have never married and don't care what you think. We can do better than the little-piggy-world that created Old Maid.

And we should.