Sunday, December 21, 2014

I'm Sick of This Crap

"I'm not sure if I'm going through an assertiveness phase, or a raving bitch phase," I recently confided to some friends.

I had taken one of my kids (I forget which one - for our purposes, it's not important) to the doctor, and as I sat in the waiting room, I caught wind of a juicy bit of gossip. Naturally, I couldn't wait to pass it along. 

While the doctor examined my child, I filled her in. 

"I hear Hannah Arbromowitz's* mom took some medication last night, and now she doesn't know if she should nurse Hannah. She's been calling all morning - so annoying! Do you encourage your staff to discuss patient information in front of the people in the waiting room? Does it help build community?" 

No, that's not what I said, but wouldn't you prefer it was? I communicated like an adult, but I did rat out the receptionists for their HIPPA violation. 

"Because you're sick of this crap," one of my friends suggested. 

"I am," I confirmed. "I am sick of this crap." 

Not long after, we learned my husband's case had been rejected by the NIH Undiagnosed Disease Program. Turns out, it's similar to The Innocence Project, where they like to take cases they think stand a chance. Now, I don't know why one undiagnosed illness has a better chance of being diagnosed than another - you'd think if anyone knew what it was, it wouldn't be undiagnosed - but I'm no medical researcher. What I am is sick of this crap. 

My daughter has been talking all year about how at the end of this year, she and her fellow fifth graders are scheduled to watch a video on puberty. "Sex ed," I thought it was. The children are simultaneously intrigued and horrified, and have made plans to spend the year leading up to said video fearing to watch, but not daring to look away. 

I was a bit surprised to learn the boys and girls would be separated, and all they're going to do is watch a video. I have since learned they will also be having a frank discussion with their teacher, so that's a plus. I'm betraying my age, but you see, in my day, giggles and secrecy were discouraged. In both fourth and sixth grades, my class had an entire unit on sex ed, taught my our teachers, and it was comprehensive and fact-based.

I don't believe there was a video involved (there was one in ninth grade, but in Mr. Morgan's defense, what was he going to do? Have a woman give birth in front of the class, live?), as such things were considered outdated and absurd. Proof? My husband and I, although we didn't meet until our 20s, still laugh at a video on train safety we both happened to see. 

A family was stopped in their car on the train tracks. The children noticed there was a train coming, and mentioned it to their father.

"Well, it's just going to have to wait!" 

Needless to say, those were his last words. As kids, we shook our heads and laughed grimly. We knew better, and we've been repeating that line ever since. 

To add insult to injury, my daughter told me that not only does her school's "sex ed" (her teacher has since corrected me on this - it is not sex ed, she has explained to me, but rather a video on maturation) consist of a single video, and not only are the boys and girls separated for it, but there are two different videos. But wait, there's more! Not only are there two different videos, one for girls and one for boys, but the girls watch both, while the boys watch only the "boy" one. 

I fretted over this a little, but concluded it couldn't possibly be true. The most likely explanation, I decided, was that the girls in my daughter's grade had gotten this information from girls a year older than themselves, igniting a rumor born of ignorance - the girls had talked among themselves, and didn't really know what the boys had seen. School yard rumor. A game of telephone.

"Kids," I thought. "The things they come up with!" I smiled and shook my head. It was for precisely this reason that sex ed was so important - look how kids could twist the facts if they were left to their own devices. Preposterous. 

However, last week, my daughter told me something that made me wonder if the children had been right all along. From the mouths of babes, and all that. 

"The boys' parents were complaining, so they stopped showing them the girls' video," she told me. 

This rang a bit more true, but still - really? Boys' parents had complained? And the school had appeased them? I emailed my daughter's teacher, who confirmed that, while she was not happy with this turn of events, it was true. The squeaky wheel had gotten the grease. Since none of the girls' parents had complained, they had continued providing the girls with complete information. After all, why keep all the students ignorant, when they could get away with actually educating half of them? 

Can't argue with that, but have I mentioned being sick of this crap? 

I don't want either of my children dating a boy who hasn't been taught some basic information about the female body. In regards to my daughter, the reasons for this should be obvious. But I don't want my son dating a boy raised in such a manner, either. Imagine, if you will, my son is gay. In reality, I do not have the foggiest idea if he's gay or not, but for the sake of argument, assume he is. 

Now, if my son says he's gay, he's gay. However, can I say the same of a boy who doesn't even know what breasts are for? Maybe he has simply been driven into the arms of another man because the idea that girls are icky has been so deeply embedded in his brain. Later, it will slowly dawn on him that he's heterosexual. 

That's right. It's entirely possible my son's heart could be broken, all because I have no control over the fact that other parents insist on forcing their kids to wallow in ignorance. No thanks! 

I picture my family three, five, ten years in the future. One of my kids has brought a nice boy home to meet the family. I mean, he seems like a nice boy, but how can I be sure? 

After offering him a cup of tea, I invite him to join me on the couch. 

"Please, help yourself," I'll say, gesturing toward the crudités. 

"So," I ask him, while he nibbles on a sugar snap pea, "are you familiar with the concept of menstruation?" 

"MOM!!!!" my son or daughter will exclaim, mortified. 

"What?" I'll ask, pretending I have no idea why this might bother them. "I'm just trying to make conversation with your friend!" 

I'll smile as I briefly make eye contact with the boy in question, shaking my head and rolling my eyes. My kids - it seems like everything I do embarrasses them these days! I just can't win. I take it in stride, although I'll wonder aloud if he is this hard on his parents.

On the other hand, maybe the boy whose parents didn't allow him to see the video really is gay. By coincidence, he's gay and from a family that encourages willful ignorance. One can easily imagine that his parents aren't too keen on the gays, either. With my son-in-law estranged from his family, I never have to share the holidays. Don't get me wrong. They try. My husband and I spend Christmas of 2037 alone, our son with his husband's parents, our daughter shooting a film on location in Belarus. But things don't go well, and by 2038, I have all my babies back again. **

I could try complaining to the principal, but it's probably out of her hands, too. Anyway, since not telling boys about what puberty involves for girls is clearly going to work in my favor, maybe I should just leave it alone. 

*Names have been changed. 

**I mean my son and son-in-law's visit with the in-laws doesn't go well. My daughter accomplished exactly what she had set out to with her film, it's just done. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Be More Better!

“I no longer have patience for certain things, not because I’ve become arrogant, but simply because I reached a point in my life where I do not want to waste more time with what displeases me or hurts me. I have no patience for cynicism, excessive criticism and demands of any nature. I lost the will to please those who do not like me, to love those who do not love me and to smile at those who do not want to smile at me.
I no longer spend a single minute on those who lie or want to manipulate. I decided not to coexist anymore with pretense, hypocrisy, dishonesty and cheap praise. I do not tolerate selective erudition nor academic arrogance. I do not adjust either to popular gossiping. I hate conflict and comparisons. I believe in a world of opposites and that’s why I avoid people with rigid and inflexible personalities. In friendship I dislike the lack of loyalty and betrayal. I do not get along with those who do not know how to give a compliment or a word of encouragement. Exaggerations bore me and I have difficulty accepting those who do not like animals. And on top of everything I have no patience for anyone who does not deserve my patience.”

This is the latest "older women who have learned shit" quote I've seen going around. It's been attributed, apparently falsely, to Meryl Streep, but it hardly matters. It's pretty typical. "I'm a woman in her 40s, 50s or 60s, and I've learned that I'm too nice and other people suck."

From the time I was very young, I had a sinking suspicion that I was really meant to be middle-aged. This used to bother me, but I've learned it's a blessing. I am convinced that my best days are not behind me. Now I almost wish I'd always had a sinking suspicion I was meant to be 92. But I think this is better, because you never know. 

When David Rakoff articulated the way I felt about the whole thing, I almost cried with relief. But mostly I almost cried because David Rakoff had died, at the age of 47, having only just reached what he thought would be his perfect age. I never had an exact number in mind like he did, so I'll just take comfort in knowing I'm getting there, and I may live to see my entire heyday. 

I'm a bit younger than most older women who have learned things, so I suppose I could still get to the point where I believe all I need to know is that I'm better than everyone else. For now, I've learned some things, and most of them have nothing to do with other people wanting to take me down. While I am indeed less of a pleaser than I used to be, the fact that I once was can't be blamed on those I aimed to please. They're on their journey, I'm on mine, and as another old Facebook saying goes, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. 

Now that I've reached my late 30s, I'm probably not as "nice" as I was when I was younger, but that works out for everyone, because I'm kinder. I'm more forgiving and less inclined to gossip. A natural grudge-holder, nursing a grudge is now a halfhearted endeavor at best. I accept other people for who they are, and know they're doing their best. I rarely ask "why me," having come to truly accept that the question is as futile as it is self-centered and clueless. 

I know when I'm upset with someone, it's often about me, and the best way to handle that is to own my issues. Being nasty and rude is a poor imitation of strength, and I'll tell you what - strength? I have it. Did I always have it, without realizing it? Or is it a recent development? Don't know, don't care. I don't think I even knew I wanted it until the day I realized it was there. What I do know is, strength rarely looks defensive or unkind. When I'm acting that way, it's coming from a place of weakness. Strength is empathy, understanding, and, most (and, for me, most difficult) of all, patience. 

I started my 30s feeling happy with my husband and children, but not much else. I didn't feel I had close friends. Although I was just finishing grad school, I thought I'd never find my career or my passion. I'd wasted every advantage I'd been given, and now it was too late. But this decade has been the best one. Everything I thought I didn't have has grown up around me, and I hardly even had to try. 

I know I've made a million mistakes, and while I'm not one to say I have no regrets, I can honestly tell myself I have always, every day, done the best I could. I can be sad I didn't have the (usually internal) resources I needed to do things differently, but I can't be angry, because I would have had to be someone else for my past to have been dramatically different than it was. I'm making mistakes now, and I believe in my heart that Old Erin will extend me the same understanding I have for Young Erin, even if Young Erin did me many a disservice, and I'm doing the same to Old Erin. 

ADD. I have it. It sucks. There are things that, as a reasonably intelligent, able-bodied woman, I "should" be able to do, yet some of these things fall outside of my skill set. The fact that others may not understand or believe this bothers me, but I've learned that if I know in my heart I can't do something, it's better not to pretend I can. Don't make commitments I can't keep, even if the person who wants me to make said commitment will never believe it's a can't rather than a won't. It will be better for everyone in the long run. As much as I might like to make other people happy by saying "yes," only I know exactly how much follow through and organization I'm capable of. If I'm not positive I can do it, I won't pretend I can. It's not about setting boundaries, it's about knowing my limitations. I'm disorganized, and I can be unreliable. Although it turns out, my limitations are not as many and massive as I once believed they were.

Maybe you've seen me fail at any of the things I'm claiming I've learned. In my defense, I'm not even 38 years old. Very young to have learned much of anything. I'm working on it. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Ruining It For the Rest of Us

These are my new shoes. They're surprisingly comfortable. By which I mean, they're more comfortable than they look. I thought I wouldn't be able to walk in them, but I can, and easily. But let's be clear. Surprisingly comfortable does not equal comfortable. 

A week or so ago, I posted this picture on Facebook, asking if they looked like stripper shoes. Today at church, my friend Susie asked me if those were the shoes, and I told her they were

While agreeing they were fabulous, she whispered, somewhat skeptically, "So...are those post-feminist?" 

I was glad she asked, because I'm not being sarcastic in the least when I say I had wanted to have this discussion with someone. Not over the shoes, per se, but in general. 

"No," I whispered back, "they aren't feminist."

"I was thinking, post-feminist, or sexism?" 

"Sexism," I answered confidently. It's probably technically a matter of opinion, but I know where I fall. 

"But you're participating in it!" she argued. Not angry, just a bit perplexed. 

"Yes," I answered. She looked at me quizzically. 

Unfortunately, it was the middle of the service, not a good time to talk. 

"I definitely want to have this conversation with you," I told her, "so let's catch each other when we can." 

There is no need for anyone to say she did anything wrong. I wasn't bothered by what she asked, did not feel judged in the least, agree with her 100%, and our Unitarian Universalist church was exactly the right place to do it. If I'd had enough time to formulate my thoughts, I could have explained it to her quite succinctly. 

"I'm wrong." 

Doing whatever the hell you want is not feminism. Feminism is a movement - it's about lifting up a group of people. Decisions that align with a movement aren't about doing what you feel like, not even necessarily about what's best for you at any given moment. By wearing uncomfortable, impractical shoes, I'm not doing myself or anyone else any favors. I'm creating both short and long term problems for myself, and I'm creating just a little bit of pressure on other women to do the same. 

I wear these shoes because I think they're fun. Fun looking, not fun like shoes with trampolines at the bottom would be. Like makeup, shaving my legs, and probably some other things I'm too brainwashed to notice, I do it because I think it makes me look better. If I lived on a desert island and had never been exposed to mainstream media, and you approached me with these shoes and suggested I wear them, I'm pretty sure I'd think you were out of your damn mind. 

Is it unfeminist to want to look good? I'll just say it - kind of. Men want to be attractive, but don't spend the time, money, or energy women do on it. They don't wear shoes that aren't actually much good for walking. "Attractive" is fine, if it means clean, healthy, and not stinky. The effort women put into it, the physical and psychological damage we subject ourselves to? The level of importance we place on it? It's sexist. It just is. 

I'd suggest most women make some concessions to the patriarchal system we're a part of, and when we do, we are both victims and perpetrators. I get to pick out my own shoes, and nobody has tried to say I can't. However, over the last ten or twenty years, third wave feminism has created an environment that allows me to get self-righteous if anyone even dares to question. But just because you can doesn't mean you should. 

In an attempt to have it both ways, women often argue vehemently in favor of things that would make any feminist from, say, the beginning of time until 1990 roll over in their grave, or, if they're alive, vomit. We have to stop subjecting each other to manipulations like this or this. Yeah, I think Elizabeth Wurtzel is a particularly loathsome individual. 

Occasionally, I'll hear women say they do these things "for themselves." "It just so happens that the things I want to do for myself and all my aesthetic preferences mesh exactly with what I've been told to like and want and think are attractive!" A) You might not want to take so much pride in that, and B) No. 

I wear makeup, which is, in my mind, possibly the most fucked up of all my choices, because it means I hand my money over to a corporation that absolutely, inarguably relies on women being insecure. I think it's fun, but again, context. I live here and now. I believe certain things because I'm supposed to. 

There are some concessions I've opted out of. When that gets hard, I'm somewhat resentful of the women who conceded. So, by the same logic, the woman who doesn't want to wear makeup to her job interview, but is afraid she won't be hired if she doesn't, has every right to resent me. Because what I've done isn't cool, and it isn't nice. 

I'm a mother. Literally, yes, but also figuratively. Not to be too grandiose - it's not personal. Other people influence me, and I influence other people. I can say I shouldn't have to worry about it all I want, but that won't make it any less true. As feminists, as women, as members of the human race, as earthlings, as sentient beings, we owe each other. 

So, without further ado...

Stuff I Do That's Bullshit

  1. Wear makeup.
  2. Shave my legs.
  3. Shave my armpits.
  4. Wear uncomfortable shoes. 
  5. Exercise I don't like (a gray area, since there's a health element, but that's not really my motivation). 
There's more, but it gets more volatile. I don't want to lose any friends over it, and I truly believe that if I listed some of it, no matter how carefully I tried to explain, I would. I've also chosen not to do some things I think are sexist bullshit, but for obvious reasons, that's even more of a "don't go there." So maybe I should add at least one more thing to my list: 

    6. Be a coward. 

The very least I can do here is not twist us all up in mental gymnastics by explaining why trying to make myself acceptable for men/society/male society is empowering. It might sometimes feel empowering, but it's not. I'm not going to pretend all my choices are feminist just because they're being made by a woman. I'm just going to have to admit that sometimes, being a feminist isn't my top priority. Even when it probably should be. If you question me, you are right. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Until I Say Goodbye to Denial

"What a golden age, 
what a time of right and reason
the consumers king 
and unhappiness is treason"

- The Magnetic Fields, Strange Powers


Half memoirs, half self-help books make me a little wary, because what works for one person may do the opposite for another. Until I Say Goodbye by Susan Spencer-Wendel was no exception. I read it and liked it, and would have liked it more if it were only meant to serve as a memoir and a love letter to the author's children. But that isn't how it was marketed, and it isn't the entire intention. The intention of this book is to let us all know that if a woman dying of ALS while she has three young children can "live with joy," the rest of us have no excuse.


I must object to the widely held idea that there's something selfish and self-indulgent about being unhappy. It's absurd. By its very definition, people do not like being unhappy. This is almost always true, no matter how many mental gymnastics you do to convince yourself that, since unhappy people can be unpleasant, they must be enjoying it, and therefore you're free to judge. Furthermore, undesirable emotions are part of being alive. Being happy all the time is not an option, although for a variety of reasons, it's more attainable to some than others. 

Susan Spencer-Wendel seems to have been a great person. Hard working, high achieving, and a barrel of fun. She had a million friends, a devoted husband and three lovely children. When she was diagnosed with ALS, she decided she wouldn't feel sorry for herself, but instead be joyful because she was alive. Which is great. I'm glad she could do it. I'm glad she was able to pack so much into her last couple of years. My concerns is the "What's your excuse?" tone of this book. I'm afraid it will be read by terminally ill people or, worse, their friends and acquaintances, and used as a means to deny them feelings deemed inconvenient to themselves or others. So now not only do they have to cope with dying decades before they expected to, but they have to pretend to be at peace with it. If that happens for some, great. But it's an unreasonable expectation, and an unacceptable demand.

Spencer-Wendel had two things going for her that most don't. One, money. Although there were moments of her appreciating simple things available to anyone, for the most part, where did she get this joy she was living with? She bought it. Which is fine for her - given her circumstances, I'd have done the same. However, if this is how living with joy is attained, I'm afraid it isn't available to most people. Again, this is fine for a memoir, but troubling if it's meant to serve as a guide for others, which it is. Even her simple pleasures take place in luxury hotels, exotic destinations, or the lavish "chickee hut" she decided she desperately needed in her back yard. Don't go spending staggering amounts of money to make yourself happy and have the audacity to imply that those who can't do it are weak or self-indulgent (seriously, going on a massive spending spree is somehow presented as not indulging oneself). If the things you use to make yourself happy are largely out of reach for most people, you've lost your claim to smug. Edit: Whatever makes you happy, it's not available to everyone. Don't be smug. 

If you like memoirs by affluent women coming to terms with the reality that they won't be there to see their children grow up, might I suggest A Matter of Life and Death, by Marjorie Williams? It's only an article, but all these years later it remains one of the best pieces of writing I've ever encountered. I'm loathe to imply Marjorie Williams did it "right" and Susan Spencer-Wendel did it "wrong," because they were two different women. But I do think seeing someone take almost the exact opposite approach has merit. Williams was in her emotions. All of them. She was terrified, resentful and furious, and none of this robbed her of the ability to find joy in the fact that she was alive.

Williams also acknowledged her privilege, which, to the best of my recollection, Spencer-Wendel didn't even pretend to do. You see, while Oprah encourages gratitude, she's mostly talking to people who can't afford luxury. She also encourages the successful not to feel guilty, because you know, law of attraction. You're entitled to anything you have. The more you have to be grateful for, the less you are morally obliged to bother. This seems to be the position Spencer-Wendel took, and in the process she managed to achieve something almost impossibly difficult - joy without gratitude. Gratitude requires at least some degree of humility, and completely excludes entitlement.

Even if you have money, the level of joy attained by Spencer-Wendel may not be in the cards for you. The other ingredient here was a brain that, for whatever reason, wasn't prone to depression. "You are the master of your mind," was her motto, but what she really meant was, "I am the master of my mind." She had not lived with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or obsessive compulsive disorder. Where does the mind end and the brain begin? She did suffer from one episode of mild depression as a young adult, but it was brief and treatable. When she was diagnosed with ALS, she went on anti-depressants, which she and her husband called "happy pills." Well, let me tell you something - they do not work that way for most people.

Her joy seems to be as much about proving she's right as anything. Again, that's fine - whatever gets you through the night. Heaven knows she had the right to do whatever she had to do to comfort herself. However, it created a thread of dishonesty that ran throughout most of the book. I found she was most relatable when she allowed herself to have uncomfortable feelings, which usually manifested in grief over the probability that she would miss seeing her children grow up. It would be impossible not to feel for her while she was lying in bed, unable to move or even raise her voice, and listening to her terrified son screaming because he was locked in an elevator (also, I suspect, because his mom was dying).

Another example of simple humanity was her taking her teenage daughter to try on a wedding dress. I can't imagine she was the type of woman who sat around planning her daughter's wedding, but even so, the time came when, knowing she would never see any such thing, she indulged herself and talked her daughter (who wanted a mini-skirt) into humoring her. In addition to allowing her a small glimpse into a future she wouldn't see, she also felt it might do something to infuse her daughter with a sense of her presence on some future date when she may very much want it.

Later, she took her to see Wicked on Broadway (which, I feel compelled to mention, would out of necessity be where the financial self-indulgence began and ended for most people), and cried during one of the songs. Looking over, she saw her daughter was also crying. After the show, she asked why, and her daughter told her "I was crying because you were crying." "No more of that," Spencer-Wendel admonished herself. But I had to wonder - did she make her daughter cry, or did she allow her daughter to cry? Would the grief have arisen anyway, tears or no tears?

I'll admit to having pegged Susan Spencer-Wendel as a type. Specifically, a type I have a hard time with - someone who owes their ability to achieve to being intelligent, but somewhat shallow. These people are usually not troubled souls, and I don't begrudge then that. The trouble arises when they lack compassion, which in my experience, many of them do. A healthy dose of self-centeredness allows them to do well for themselves, but leaves them with little ability to try on different points of view. Considering how well this world view works for them, can I really say it's a problem? If avoiding unpleasant emotions and alternative points of view made her last couple of years as pleasant as possible, perhaps these people are right - they do have it figured out.

The problem is insisting others process things the same way. The author dubbed her older son, Aubrey, a "complainer," but admitted this went hand in hand with him being what his teacher described as an old soul. Sensitive to himself and others, and keenly aware of what was going on around him. In a rare moment of insight into how people who differ from herself function, she was terribly sad for him, knowing life in general would be more painful for him than for her, her husband or her daughter (her younger son is autistic, and presented as being on an entirely different emotional plane). The question is, when sadness, anger, fear and grief all fall under the "self-pity" umbrella, where is there room for someone like Aubrey?

My intention isn't to question the parenting decisions she and her husband made. Indeed, one of the few examples of her displaying any vulnerability happened when she explained how they chose to present her illness to their kids. This was what they chose to do, these were their reasons, and all she could do was fervently hope it was the right thing. It's hard to judge under those circumstances. What parent hasn't been there?

I'm not saying Susan Spencer-Wendel did any of it wrong, only that what's right for her may not be right, or even possible, for others. The last thing any of us need when we have a problem is the added responsibility of feeling like moral failures because we aren't happy about it.

The day you realize you'll never swim again just might be a bad day. You can decided not to allow yourself to feel any regret over it.

Imagine that your brain is made of tiny boxes,
and find the box thats sad and CRUSH IT!

Or you can feel whatever emotions come up for you, and let them go when they're ready. If you choose the latter, Oprah may not be as impressed with you, but perhaps being honest and authentic has value, too. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Limbo is uncomfortable and unpleasant. Is it worse than hell? I'd like to think not, but who knows? It doesn't matter. There's no point in comparing misfortune. I'm relatively certain we don't all get our equal share. It doesn't come out fair in the end. If I keep that in mind, I know this cosmic unfairness has, so far, been skewed in my favor.

Even now that my husband has been suffering from some unknown ailment long? Two years? Three? Four? Even now, we're lucky. It's probably the best time in human history to be undiagnosed. Time was, a clinic in Bethesda, Maryland was the only place in the country dedicated to people with undiagnosed ailments. Even that has only been around since 2008. But just this summer, six more clinics have opened across the country.

Dr. House is real, sort of, in the form of Dr. William Gahl. Except he's a real guy, a team player, takes offense to being compared to Dr. House, and the majority of his cases still go unsolved. Even so, it's very heartening.

Lucky or not, days, months, years go by, and sometimes I am very, very tired. Not as tired as Jeremy, my undiagnosed husband. I'm not forgetting that it is he, and not myself, who is sick. But still. So. Goddamn. Tired. So tired I'm not sure if I'm even writing coherently, and but I'll probably publish it without making sure.

I can't open a bottle of mineral water, so I think of asking Jeremy. He can usually open bottles and jars, I think. Once upon a time, if he couldn't, I wouldn't have thought anything of it. I would have blamed the bottle. But now, I'm terrified of finding out he can't, so I don't ask him to do it. I get a rubber band out of the junk drawer and wrap it around the lid. If that doesn't work, I'll have plain old water. I should have been self-reliant enough to figure these things out on my own all along, shouldn't I?

I've always understood that it wasn't neglect or carelessness that led to Jeremy's lack of diagnosis. The doctors don't know. If you don't know, you don't know. They can either be honest about that, like they have been, or they can make something up, and I'd rather they didn't. The individual doctors aren't to blame, but I see now that the medical profession does bear some responsibility. One might think undiagnosed illnesses and the internet are a match made in heaven. After all, if a disease is rare, it stands to reason that a doctor, even a specialist, will rarely see it. But doctors with patients they can't diagnose live as though it's the 20th century. Complain about it all you want, but the internet has a lot of non-frivolous purposes, and this could be one of them. Consider, for example, Heather Long's idea. It came to her in the worst possible way.

I know you don't have any money. I know you're already donating what you can to whatever causes resonate the most with you, and I can respect that what resonates with you might be different than what resonates with me. I can even dig that your reasons may be less selfish than my own. It's so annoying to be constantly hit up for money. But I'd really like to see this film be finished. Donate if you want to.

It's important. For you, and me (but mostly me).

Well, mostly Jeremy, but I can't work in a delightful song if I put it that way. We don't even necessarily need better medical advances (although it couldn't hurt). We just need to be able to make the most of what we already have. Raising awareness would help quite a bit with that.

It's not that we feel alone. We don't. I don't. Jeremy probably does, because how could he not? When I read about people with serious diseases, they have almost always heard the most awful, insensitive things. Not us! This entire, um, journey (we'd go on more actual journeys without it, prolly) has reaffirmed what every hardship in my life has taught me - that people are wonderful. We're not lacking in emotional support (but I don't mean stop). What we really need is practical, tangible help. From the medical community.

Friday, September 12, 2014

It Isn't a Girl!

A year or so ago, I suddenly became obsessed with Jack the Ripper. I went on a two or three day long murderer spree, combing the internet for information. After that, I abruptly forgot all about it. This week, I was terribly relieved to hear he had been identified through DNA testing. This may not be true, but I have to believe it is. Because the alternative is too disturbing to contemplate. This chapter in "my" life needs to be closed.

While combing through a list of suspects, I came face to face with the terrifying possibility that Jack the Ripper was Jill the Ripper. It's difficult to fully convey how much this upset me. I'm pretty sure the page I linked to contains a pencil drawing of a guess of what she looked like, but the truth is I can't even have that in front of me long enough to say for sure. The idea, as I remember it, was that she could have been a midwife, someone who could walk around with blood on her clothes without drawing suspicion.

The question is, why does the possibility that a savage serial killer could have been a woman bother me so much? These victims died under the same horrific circumstances regardless of the gender of their killer. But logic doesn't change a thing. The very idea of Jack the Ripper being female makes my blood run cold.

I can speculate. Maybe it's because women are conditioned to fear male violence. I make it a (mostly unconscious) policy to exercise caution around men I don't know. It's not that I think women are angels. There was that girl in seventh grade who wanted to fight me. I could get punched in the face by one, or have money or even my identity stolen. But I guess I've always implicitly trusted other women not to sadistically murder me.

You know how sometimes, you're talking to someone, and you realize they're thinking about the best way to dispose of your body? Neither did I, until I answered an ad on Craigslist after my son was born. A woman claiming to be pregnant with a boy and destitute was soliciting baby things, so I gave her a call. But when we tried to make plans, she started making every excuse she could think of not to meet me at a neutral location. She was working very hard to get me to her house.

"This woman wants to kill me and steal my baby!" I thought. At the time, I thought it probably wasn't true, but for a number of reasons didn't seem worth the risk. A year later, I heard of a woman who was murdered in Oregon after answering a very similar ad.

So I'm semi-confident that the only person who's ever seriously considered killing me was female. Still, I find the idea of a a grizzly, cold-blooded female killer who preys on other women to be uniquely chilling. No matter your gender, I don't recommend you be a serial killer. But if you identify as female, poison is the preferred method. A lady never engages in bludgeoning. Do I really have to tell you this? I'm sorry to lay out my gender biases like this, but it's something I feel strongly about.

In many ways, I'm scared to death of women. Even so, they have this way of making me feel like they won't murder me. A lot of men have this ability too - nay, many men are quite capable of not seeming like they'll kill you - just not quite as reliably as women do.

I was surprised by my extreme reaction when it first came up, and discussed it with a few friends. At least one felt differently.

"Jack the Ripper has always freaked me out, but if it was a woman, well, I guess she must have had her reasons."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Stop It, Teachers

It's that time of year. Teachers go back to work, kids go back to school, and people who have no idea what they're talking about start bitterly complaining about the possibility that somewhere out there, there could be a teacher working under passable employment conditions. Which is a bad thing, because we have collectively decided that for teachers to have a decent, reliable job is not good for children. This is so widely accepted that teachers don't dare to express any self-interest at all. I love you all, but have you been brainwashed? Do you have Stockholm Syndrome? Because it kind of seems like you agree with those who believe you have no right to financial stability, a supportive work environment, or any desire to a happy life outside of work.

You run around, writing things like this. You make excellent points. You assure us everything you do is for the good of the children, and every word you say it true. However, while you do that, you're defending yourselves against hysterical accusations that you shouldn't have to dignify with an answer. The more you assure us that everything you do is for the children, the more you play into the implication that it somehow benefits kids for their teachers to have crappy jobs. You tacitly agree that putting any energy into your own needs is in opposition to the best interest of all children, everywhere. 

"The teachers have a union. What do the kids have???" ask hand-wringing c-list celebrities. True, kids are vulnerable. But frankly, their interests are being overrepresented here, although it's happening in a deeply disingenuous way. In a way that, ironically, isn't doing them any favors. They're going to grow up and enter the job market. Some of them will become teachers. What do we want to see waiting for them when they get there?

This year, Whoopi Goldberg, a Hollywood actress turned person-who-talks-out-of-her-ass-for-a-living, is the vehicle for the argument that tenure protects "bad teachers", but it could have been anyone. She claims to be a thinker, but she's merely repeating what millions of others have already voiced. You want to talk about someone with no accountability? There's no reason for Goldberg to put herself out by researching or even employing her critical thinking skills. She has a larger audience than any teacher, but there will be no consequences if it's revealed she has no idea what she's talking about. She has zero incentive to be responsible. Worst case scenario, she loses her job, spends an evening crying into her solid gold pillow. She does a little soul searching. She asks herself if she'd rather find a new project (so she can be fulfilled - she doesn't have to worry about supporting herself), or if it would be better to drop out and live out her days in luxurious retirement. If there's a teacher out there whose biggest concern is that you might get your feelings hurt, call me! I'd love to know your secret. 

Oh, to return to the golden days of childhood, when Whoopi starred in major motion pictures, playing fictional characters who made you believe Whoopi herself was intelligent, interesting and likable. You're a little black woman in a big, silver box. You breathed new life into the nun's choir. You let go of the fact that the woman you were madly in love with couldn't love you back, and sat right by Mary Louise Parker's side while she died of AIDS. I want to love you. I really do. 

After receiving some backlash that will not have the slightest negative effect on her life, Whoopi issued this very condescending rebuttal: 

Oh, your children and grandchildren went to school, or are currently attending! Than naturally, you know what you're talking about. Not everyone cay say that. Oh, wait. Yes they can. Literally every American can say they, their children, their grandchildren or someone they know has attended school, because we're all offered a free, comprehensive education. Whoopi Goldberg has indeed established herself as someone who has the bare minimum knowledge in this area. 

In the end, she mentions she's the child of a teacher. Like me, and Matt Damon. So why is Matt Damon so much more (forgive me) schooled in this issue than she is?

I can't get enough of Matt Damon being intelligent, sane and thoughtful. Why hasn't he been offered a spot on The View? Because while Goldberg clarifies that she was only talking about bad teachers, Damon exposes why that's such a manipulative point for her, or anyone, to make. So does Yuhuru Williams. 

Opponents of tenure however have used the “bad teacher” argument as a thinly veiled effort to attack teacher unions, claiming that they represent the interests of underperforming teachers over students. In reality, when empowered by state law to do so, teacher unions are often the loudest voices in favor of critical reforms that benefit students. By advocating for small class sizes, increased opportunities for professional development, safe and secure instructional spaces, and much needed resources for student instruction, teacher unions are generally the first and strongest advocates for interventions on issues such as poverty and the inadequate distribution of resources that most contribute to low-performing schools.

What's a bad teacher? There is no definition. It seems a bad teacher is someone who has offended a child or parent in some way. Over the course of a 30 or 40 year career, will even one teacher be able to escape this accusation? Currently, there is no way of measuring teacher performance that doesn't penalize the hardest working teachers - the ones who work with the highest need students. If you're so worried about holding teachers accountable, maybe you should be working on finding a way to do so.

But teachers. Teachers, teachers, teachers. You work hard every day. Your career required you to make a considerable investment of money and time to even get through the front door. You're professionals, and most of you hold yourselves to a high standard. Would you mind spending 13 years educating my children? The average person would laugh in my face, but a teacher doesn't blink. "Sure!" they say.

Do they do it for the money? The status? The summers off? Because they secretly love seeing children falling on the playground? The answer isn't my concern. I don't ask my children's pediatrician to do an amazing job overseeing my kids' health, and also prove she's worthy of doing so. Is it really, really important for her to do a good job? Does she owe it to me, and to my kids? Yes. But I'm not going to focus on that. "Somebody, think of the children!" has been done to death. It's important for professionals who cater to our physical, psychological and intellectual health to be well-meaning and competent. Duh. It goes without saying. I've already said too much, and in doing so done exactly what I'm lambasting teachers for doing.

Again, though, I say teachers! You aren't helping when you make sure to emphasize that every decent working condition you fight for is for the children, and that those children are you students, not the ones you have at home. Mentioning your own kids' needs is forboden. In the context of fighting for your working conditions, you never do it. Look, I'm not downplaying how important you are to your students. My kids will remember you all their lives. But those kids many of you have at home, the ones who are legally yours? You love them more. Admit it, and know that's the way it should be. It benefits them for you to be financially stable. They need houses, healthcare, college funds, enriching experiences and satisfied parents who aren't constantly worried about their livelihood, and unlike my kids, they're completely dependent on you to provide it all. No matter how much you love them and they love you, I'm virtually certain my kids won't be at your death bed. Yours will.

You defend yourselves against accusations of having some interest in your own job security and financial situation without ever stopping to say, "Well, yeah. I have what should be a firmly middle-class job, and I care about securing a middle-class lifestyle for my family."

I'm the child of a public school teacher, the product of dozens of them, and now the parent of two children in public school. So basically, I'm Whoopi Goldberg, a person with average knowledge. Unlike her, I have an original point to make. One that, disturbingly, I never hear. The Emperor is naked. The kids are very important, but no more important than their teachers. Fortunately, teachers and students do not have conflicting needs. But when does a person's well-being stop mattering? At the age of 18? Upon the birth of their first child? Or do you stop mattering the second you have a teaching certificate in your hand?

While you repeatedly assure us it's all about the kids, you play into the idea that you don't and shouldn't matter. You also seem to aggravate the stunning entitlement already displayed by the general public - we are further convinced you owe it to us to give us your lives. You don't. You provide a service, we compensate you for it. The fact that you put heart and passion into it is just so much velvet. It shows, it has a positive influence on all of us, but it can't be measured, and you don't have to suffer to prove it. No one is held to our collective puritanical morality the way you are, but have you stopped to ask yourself if you really believe in it? You didn't take a vow of poverty (well, that's debatable, but you shouldn't have had to). Nowhere in your job description does it say you must live an ascetic lifestyle at all times, and your students do not benefit from you volunteering for one.

They're kids for a short time. All too soon, they grow up. They get jobs. Some of them become teachers. Can you really tell me those students don't have a special place in your heart? When you sell yourself out, you sell them out. Period. No matter what they do, the conditions of one standard, run-of-the-mill middle class career influences all the others. Don't sell them out. Give them the chance to grow up and have a stable future. You do this already, of course, by teaching then every day. Yet here I am, audacious enough to ask that you do more. It's too much to ask. It's not fair. You didn't sign up for it. It's not your job. I'm asking anyway.

I'm sorry if this sounds dramatic, but the future of the American middle-class lies in your hands. Renouncing your own needs won't save it. Speaking up for yourself may not either, but it could help. When I started writing this, I was full of my usual righteous indignation. But now, I want to beg you. Please, please please. Think of the children. Consider their future. Metaphorically put on your own oxygen mask before you try to help them. I know you want them to advocate for themselves, to believe they're worthy of being fairly compensated for the work they do. So model it. Please. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

It's Not About You

Recently, I read the book You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, by Heather Sellers. It's the story of her struggle with prosopagnosia (face blindness), which she didn't realize existed until her late 30s. As she started reading about it, she realized quickly she had it. But as she tentatively brought it up to friends, family, and medical professionals, they roundly rejected it. Their justifications for this varied, but seemed to come down to three arguments.

"You couldn't possibly have face blindness. I can recognize faces just fine."

"You can't have face blindness, because sometimes you recognize me."

or occasionally,

"You don't have face blindness, because sometimes I have trouble with faces, too."

Logic, my friend. Learn to love it.

For some reason, people are reluctant to believe that others can have disorders that don't make any sense to them. Not understanding something is generally a sign that one isn't an expert on it, but many seem to consider it an asset when it comes to interpreting the behavior of others. They're suspicious and critical, and suddenly experts on things they know nothing about. This happens with bipolar disorder, high-functioning autism, ADD/ADHD, addiction, eating disorders, PTSD, sometimes even illnesses as severe as schizophrenia. That's only a partial list. Seller's ex-husband, for example, had a definition of schizophrenia that he had made up out of whole cloth, based primarily on the philosophy that those who suffer from schizophrenia are really just being difficult, and could stop it if they weren't such selfish jerks. Also, old people don't have it, because they're too tired to keep it up.

Then there are those who make a bit of noise about mental illnesses and learning disabilities being legitimate, but conclude, "it's not an excuse." What they are really saying is, "Just because you have a disorder doesn't give you any right to exhibit symptoms of that disorder." Hey, I understand you have a cold, okay? I get it. But there's no excuse for all that sneezing.

Disorders are often inconsistent. Some by definition, and many others because, well, they just are, okay? Someone with anxiety might have a good day, week or month before being seized by panic attacks again. Bipolar disorder is inconsistent by definition, so the fact that your co-worker seems in control of herself most of the time is no proof that she can master her mood swings all the time.  Maybe she's working hard all the time to keep it under control - you don't know. People with ADD/ADHD can pay attention to some things some of the time, but it might not happen when you (or they) want it to.

"Sometimes I can't remember people's names. Sometimes I have a hard time paying attention. Sometimes I feel sad. Sometimes I'm nervous. Therefore you don't have a disorder."

There also tends to be a certain circular logic to these things. Basically, it often boils down to something along the lines of "You don't have face blindness. You just made that up as an excuse for the way you don't recognize people!"

Do just a little probing, and this kind if argument will crumble. But rarely is it questioned too closely, because it's a commonly accepted attitude.

Perhaps you find it easy to eat enough calories to sustain your body. That guy over there with a restrictive eating disorder does not. Conversely, perhaps you are able to refrain from overeating. Your friend, the compulsive overeater, isn't. Can you get out of bed every morning, focus at school or work, regulate your moods well enough, and drink moderately without alcohol controlling you? Goody for you! You're lucky. That is not true for everyone else. Thank your fairy godmother. Say "there but for the grace of God go I," and get over yourself. 

People who suffer from these disorders aren't immune to arrogance and ignorance, either. They'll decide being bipolar makes them an expert on bipolar disorder, and say something like, "well, I'm bipolar, and I don't go on massive spending sprees!" Again, goody for you. Anecdotally, I've noticed those who are smug about how well they're handling their challenges often aren't doing as well as they think they are, but that's another story.

No matter how many similarities you have, the differences between you and other people are many and massive. I promise. You have absolutely no insight into why they are the way they are. None of us have an identical journey. Perhaps their illness manifests itself differently than yours does, or it's more severe, or they can't afford treatment, or they haven't had as many experiences to counter it as you have. The possibilities are endless, and you'll probably never come close to understanding them.

Do you have to put up with disrespect or abuse? Nope. You get to take care of yourself. Addicts and alcoholics in particular cause problems for people in their lives. It may be too much to accept. But when you're deciding you can't have your drunken friend call your house crying at 3AM even one more time, own your decision. Regretfully admit to yourself that the person you care about has a problem you cannot solve for them, and the risk/benefit ratio is no longer worth it to you. If you're so inclined, you can even tell them you'll be there to support them if they ever decide to seek help.

Ah, but Erin, could the inability to understand where others are coming from could be considered an issue sufferers have little to no control over, too? You certainly aren't showing a lot of compassion for it. True. It might be my blind spot, but all I can see is narcissism. You resent other people's problems, therefore they don't exist. I'll keep trying to figure out a way to accommodate this particular psychological problem while not indulging it, but I haven't found it yet.

Other people's learning disabilities and psychological problems are almost always harder on them than they are on you. The fact is, they're rarely asking for much from you. It might be as simple as you not taking offense if they walk right by you in the grocery store. Is that so hard? Because if it is, you might have a problem of your own. That kind of hypersensitivity could be indicative of a number of things. If you figure out what it is and how we can help you navigate it, please let me know how I can help.

Me, I know your face. Heather Sellers? Profoundly face blind. It's as simple as that.

Friday, August 15, 2014

In Which I Conclude Your Discomfort is Your Hang-Up, Man, Not Mine's our problem if you feel I'm making an unnecessary fuss about my racial identity. 
-Adrian Piper

As someone who has always had a complicated relationship with my own racial identity, DNA testing complicated it further, sort of. Or maybe not, as I am used to being in racial limbo. It's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable for white people, who in turn make it uncomfortable for me. Many white people really, really hate it when you look white to them, but claim you aren't.

I'm half middle-eastern, on my dad's side. Technically white, but often not considered so, and a highly disliked ethnicity in my country. However, I'm  very  fair skinned, and Assyrian, not Arab. Catholic on both sides (by heritage, not upbringing or belief), not Muslim. Culturally white and middle class (this is primarily due to specific dynamics in my dad's upbringing, and his mother's before his, which severed any cultural continuity I might have had with my Assyrian heritage), but I'm not entirely comfortable with that, either.

When my college roommate told racist jokes, and implied I was a PC thug for not laughing? It bugged me. Was this because I didn't identify as white, or because I was raised to believe that racist jokes aren't okay, even when it's just us white people? Probably a little from column A, a little from column B.

It's not that I'm not racist. I am. I suspected as much, and the Implicit Association Test confirmed it. Perhaps I'm trying to dilute my own responsibility when I say almost everyone is racist, because we're fed racist messages from early childhood. If you say you're not racist, I'll be expecting you to make a solid case for yourself. If you say "I'm not racist, but....," you're almost certainly more racist than the average person. Here I am, this is what I know about myself, and denying it isn't going to change it. If someone accuses me of racism, my job is to consider whether what they're saying has merit instead of getting defensive. That might be easier said than done, but no one ever said grappling with centuries of systematic, complicated oppression would be easy.

I'm not saying I'm not white to be difficult, but it's often received that way. And I'll tell you one thing - the implication that I'm being difficult, confrontational, or otherwise making an unnecessary fuss comes almost exclusively from white people. People of other races have always asked me what I am on a regular basis, and have almost always accepted my answer, complicated, inconsistent and uncertain as it is.

I can't say I'm totally baffled by this. A part of it is that a white person - perhaps one who hasn't thought things through enough to say what they really mean - wanting to say, hey, you have as much white privilege as I do. No one has ever said it outright, but I've always sensed that's what's bothering them. They aren't far off - I have almost as much white privilege as they do, and, in my opinion, a few advantages they don't. I don't wish for blonde hair or blue eyes, and I certainly don't wish I didn't have to think about my racial identity, what it is and how it fits into the world I live in. Due to my appearance, culture and socio-economic background, I'm not being held back because of my race. I am well aware.

For example, imagine one night I forget to turn my headlights on, and I'm pulled over. I immediately start rummaging around for my license and registration, until the officer comes to my window and tells me to put my hands on the steering wheel. I do it, of course, but it's because I'm a white woman that I'm shocked. I'm so mired in white entitlement, I almost wonder if the cop is making a point, and if he is....well done. Point taken. Obviously, I needed it. I'm not scared, because a traffic ticket is my worst case scenario, and even that probably won't happen. I'll be on my way in five minutes, with or without a ticket (for the record, it was without).

Experiences like this are what white people want to cite when I say I'm not white (which I rarely do anymore, because the reaction I sometimes get pisses me off, and I'm tired of it), but they don't because they tend to be the type who haven't really considered that they have these kinds of experiences on a daily basis. But there's also a deeper, even less articulated feeling - the feeling of rejection. If I say I'm not white, I'm condemning them somehow, saying I don't want to be a part of their tribe.

A few years ago, my book club read Sarah's Key, the story of a girl who survived a concentration camp, but came away with a stain on her heart, mind and soul so gut-wrenching that living with it was virtually impossible. After we discussed the book, we watched the movie.

As one character told another about a dark family secret that could only cause him misery, I shouted, "My God, don't tell him!"

My friend Julia turned to me and groaned, "Why do white people always have to understand everything?"

It was a lighthearted, rhetorical question. I laughed, and went back to watching the movie. But it stuck in my mind. Why do white people always have to understand everything? Huh. Isn't it natural to want to understand where you came from, what shaped you, and how you got here? Although I was uncomfortable, I reluctantly concluded that the real question was, "Why don't black people want to understand everything?" 

If you're tempted to stop reading here, give me a few more paragraphs. I'm going somewhere with this. I understand it's a truly inaccurate and sweeping generalization, but one that still led me to conclude that if African Americans people aren't crazy about digging into the past, it's because it's just too painful.

It was just a theory. I never expected to gain any firsthand knowledge of it. Although I was familiar with the fact that many white Americans were part black, I didn't associate it with myself. I'm descended from recent immigrants on almost all sides. My family hasn't been in America since slavery.

But of course, the United States isn't the only country that was part of the slave trade. Where did my Portuguese great-grandmother come from? British Guyana. How did my people get to British Guyana? It's still possible some of them came from Portugal. But a DNA test my mom took told us that the only thing was could confirm for sure was that sometime in the past 200 years, we had come from Ghana or Sierra Leone. If you were a black person in British Guyana in the 1800s, and you could pass for white, what did you do? Tell people you were Portuguese.

After that, my book club read The Book of Night Women. It was about an enslaved woman in Jamaica, and told of an attempted slave rape within the first three pages. I knew in that moment that was why I was born, and I knew it worked to my benefit. Because of some disgusting slave holder, my however-many-great-grandmother had a daughter who had a daughter who could pass as Portuguese. Perhaps she married a man who really was Portuguese, and had a daughter who could honestly say she was Portuguese, and she had a daughter who could honestly believe it, eventually bringing us here, to an unfathomable, American woman in a barely comprehensible world, who stumbled upon the truth in a way none of them could have ever wrapped their heads around. All because some rapist lent (no, gave) us his pale skin, and it's worked to our advantage every day since.

I closed the book and didn't pick it up again. I'd always known slavery was wrong - of course I had. The injustice had always enraged me. But suddenly, I wasn't angry anymore. Just tremendously sad. Desire to understand? Obliterated.

I told a few friends about it, but mostly kept it to myself. There was no cultural continuity, and I know full well I haven't lived the African American experience. Who cared? How would I bring it up? "Hi, my name is Erin, and you wouldn't know it to look at me, but I'm 1/16th black. Or maybe 1/32. 1/64, at least!" Furthermore, I still encountered defensiveness from some of the people I did tell. White people, exclusively. White people want me to be white. I've known that for a long, long time, and this wasn't any different. I've always internalized this on some level, and believed it was my problem. But maybe it's not. Maybe it's our problem. Maybe it's your problem.

At an unrelated training, I saw a video of Adrian Piper's Cornered. It's no longer available on YouTube, but I've linked to the PDF. Adrian Piper looked....very much like me, only a little more obviously black. A coincidence - I look this way because I'm middle-eastern. She addressed every reason a white person might not "come out of the closet" and tell people they're black, and managed to shred every one of them without making any kind of argument at all. She was deadpan, all sarcasm, dry wit and and unspoken accusations that manage to make themselves perfectly clear. My kind of girl. But she didn't tell me what to do. When it was over, all I could think was "What the hell am I supposed to do with that?"

Months later, I think I finally figured it out. This. This is what I'm going to do with that. Like a significant number of white Americans, I'm a little bit black. You may not care. But if you say you don't care, but it really kind of bugs you that I would feel the need to tell you? You have some work to do. It's not my problem anymore. I'm giving it back. It's all yours.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I'm sorry

A boy of 19 or 20 approached me in the Target parking lot. He was tallish, with strawberry blond hair, and very, very sheepish.

"Excuse me, I hate begging, but my parents and I were evicted yesterday. We slept in our car last night, but I'm trying to get some money together because my mom has a job interview tomorrow, and we want to get her a motel room for the night."

My city has some pretty draconian panhandling laws, and for the first few years I lived here, I never saw any panhandlers at all. Of course, this didn't mean there weren't poor and homeless people. They just weren't allowed to tell you about it. But lately, I see panhandlers from time to time. Even the brazen kind, with signs that tell you exactly what they're doing. I can only assume that the need is greater. There are just too many to control now, and a law forbidding it is pointless.

My heart was aching for the boy, until he motioned toward a car containing an absolutely ravishing woman only a few years older than himself. That's your mom? It's not that I didn't give him money - I did. It's just that he was already humiliated enough, and I hardened toward him in the middle of his very sad story.

As I walked away, I looked toward the car with the beautiful woman in it again. In the car next to her? Yeah, that was his mom.

I don't know what happened to you and your family, and this was a while ago, so I hope you've gotten back on your feet by now. It's awful enough not to have enough money to cover your basic necessities, awful enough not to even have a place to live. It's not your fault. It's a small thing, my sympathy for you evaporating just a little bit over the course of a very short conversation. But you were having a hard enough time as it was, and if I made it even the slightest bit harder for you, I am so, so sorry.

I hope both your past and your future were easier than the day we met. I hope that was the very worst day of your life.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Are Atheists Real?

Science is speculating that Atheists don't really exist, because, among other reasons, most people are carrying on an invisible monologue with some sort of unseen observer. While I would identify as Agnostic (but I'll be honest - I reluctantly lean toward Atheism), I can say it's true for me.

I'm not being cute when I say I have often looked up at the sky and thanked...someone or something for not making me religious. Although it seems to be commonly accepted that religion helps with hard times, when I observe religious people it seems to be doing them more harm than good. They have to deal with feeling betrayed in addition to whatever trauma they're facing. I'm grateful to be free of that.

But just because I'm talking to an invisible observer all the time doesn't mean I think that observer is really there. Some people seem to feel some sort of presence, but I feel like I'm talking to a brick wall. A brick wall that isn't really there.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

It's Too Easy

Like, way too easy. Dangerously easy.

I'm going to take a (brief) break from the sarcasm and snark here to say that from the clips I saw on The Soup when Jon and Kate Plus Eight was on the air, I thought Kate seemed abusive, too. Emotionally abusive to her kids, and both emotionally and physically abusive to her husband. Of course, they were clips chosen for The Soup, so who knows? Robert Hoffman also directed his readers to this, and he's right. It's horrible. Full stop.

If these kids really are being abused, it's awful, and inexcusable that no one has stepped in. I know I look a lot like I'm passionately defending Kate, by mostly I just don't like Robert Hoffman. He uses some truly impressive mental gymnastics to "prove" points about Kate that may or may not be true. He's written a book in which this woman cannot win - she's a lazy stay at home mom who does nothing but care for eight children under 5 all day, she's a selfish career woman who works too much, etc. In the end, if you can look past the slam book-style list of all the ways in which Kate sucks, it appears that Jon and Kate are both highly maladjusted people who are doing the best they can, and failing miserably. Moreover, the book lets Jon off the hook for his many, many failures. Hoffman makes the absurd claim that he doesn't know what Jon has done about Kate's abusing their children, and he's never asked. You're writing a book about a close friend's children being abused, and you never asked him what's he's tried to do about it? Ish don't think so. If he hasn't asked, it was a very deliberate decision. Either he didn't want to know, or he knew the answer wouldn't be in keeping with his thesis.

In this clip, Robert approaches a newly separated Jon's car window while Jon drops his kids off with their mother after a weekend with him. He asks, "Hey, Jon, you bringing the kids back? Is it upsetting to have to bring them back to Kate's house?" If you can see a friend is having a hard time, you should definitely interview them. Jon, preoccupied, nods distractedly. Specifically, he is preoccupied with texting, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was texting someone over the situation with the gate or the kids, who are indeed wailing. However, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Robert Hoffman would assume the absolute worst of Kate if she was on her phone in the same situation. You hear a chorus of wails from the children, and Robert claims it's because they're terrified to go home to their mom. But only one word is audible. "Daddy!" If you didn't know Kate was the devil, you'd almost think the kids find their parents' divorce upsetting and traumatic, are upset that their dad doesn't live with them anymore, and are saddened at not seeing him every day. It is indeed very sad, but doesn't necessarily confirm Robert's claims. When it's all over, Jon gets in Robert's car and leaves. You do feel sorry for Jon, having to depend on this guy who is obviously benefitting from his "concern" about his dear friend.

Back to the snark.

  • Kate once said "no pun intended" in reference to a pun that was clearly intentional. 
  • Jon figured out relatively quickly that, for for the good of all, he didn't want his family's life broadcast for public consumption. He'd been saying so for a long time, so it wasn't just a reaction to being kicked off the show after he and Kate separated. Why, when he wasn't missing meetings altogether, he was showing up late or intoxicated. If you can think of a better way to communicate with your employer, well, how nice for you. 
  • Nothing was sacred to Kate - she allowed too many of her family's private moments to be on the show.
  • When it came to plastic surgery, Kate had two offers to choose from. One would be filmed, the other wouldn't. She chose the latter. Robert's just going to leave that piece of information here, right next to the tacit implication that there was something suspicious or dishonest about it. He's pretty sure you won't wonder why on earth anyone would choose to have their plastic surgery filmed for national television if they didn't have to. 
  • Kate's journals are full of admissions she isn't perfect. She prays to be kinder, more patient, more relaxed, and more fun. Few parents are required to do this - most of us are exactly as good as we wish we were. As a matter of fact, if I'm to believe all this is really from Kate's journal, the mother she wishes she could be looks a lot like the mother Robert accuses her of pretending to be for the cameras. Like it's a wish as much as it's an act.
  • Kate expressed envy/admiration for the fact that Jon was often more patient and responsive to their kids than she was. She did this to make herself look good. 
  • Kate wasn't sad enough on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Entirely possible she wasn't appropriately worried during the Iran Hostage Crisis, either.
  • Kate's streams of consciousness are unfocused. For example, in one journal entry, she wrote about her grief and regret over the death of her grandmother and her desire to go shopping for jeans. She misses her grandma? Liar! 
  • Kate emotionally abuses her children by badmouthing their father.
  • Jon meets his children's needs by badmouthing their mother.
  • Kate sets a bad example for her daughters by focusing on her appearance and getting plastic surgery. Should model healthy self-esteem by showing them who she really is is good enough.
  • Who Kate really is is not good enough. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Robert vs. Kate, Round 2

Robert isn't finished.

  • Kate never had fertility issues. She got pregnant in high school. If you've been pregnant once, you will never have fertility issues. She doesn't have any of the symptoms of PCOS, although even her estranged ex-husband swears she does. Just look at her - do you see any ovarian cysts? 
  • Robert has spoken with some of Kate's doctors, although of course he can't use their names. After all, what medical professional wouldn't risk their license for an uncredited paraphrase in an especially long National Enquirer article? 
  • But maybe they're doing it for the same reason Robert is. Selflessly, for the good of the Gosselin children. It would do them good for their mom's shady medical history to be public information. Somebody, think of the children! 
  • Robert knows these doctors. He's seen them in the grocery store.
  • Kate says everyone who has actually met her likes her.
  • You know, this is exactly the kind of thing Robert is talking about. He's met Kate and doesn't like her. Isn't he somebody? 
  • Kate was a terrible nurse.
  • Kate is lazy; doesn't have a job, should get a job in her field. 
  • Kate works too much; should spend more time with her children. She even works on Sundays, when she should be in church. 
  • Kate's parents were physically abusive, and her dad forced her to have an abortion when she was a teenager.
  • Kate took advantage of her poor, poor parents, only to cut them off when her family got famous. 
  • The majority of the terrible decisions so far detailed in this book happened when Jon and Kate were married. They're Kate's fault. 
  • When faced with generous offers, Kate either accepts (greedy!) or declines (ungrateful!). 
  • Had no qualms about getting whatever she could from the Discovery channel, which was obviously making infinitely more off her family than it was passing along to her. 
To review: Robert's friend Jon's ex-wife is such a bitch. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Damn You, Kindle Unlimited!

Blaming Kindle Unlimited for the fact that I'm reading the trashiest book in the entire world could probably be construed by some as not taking responsibility for my actions and choices. Yeah, well, shut up.

I didn't watch Jon and Kate Plus Eight while it was on, because I had a sinking suspicion it was a modern day version of the Dion quintuplets. But above it all I was not - I followed the Kate gossip, probably because perfectionist type-As like Kate trigger my insecurities. She's my natural enemy. I'd mostly forgotten about the Gosselins, but when I saw I could read this book for free, well, don't mind if I do! It's been quite enlightening. 

I've learned that:

  • Kate is a slut.
  • Kate is judgmental.
  • Kate is religious.
  • Kate is not religious.
  • Kate is a mastermind who had planned to have "Higher Order Multiples" and exploit them since her late teens/early 20s.
  • Kate is stupid.
  • Kate used her magical female powers to ensnare many a hapless, unsuspecting gentleman.
  • Kate is a desperate loser who couldn't land a single doctor; had to settle for a doctor's son.
  • Kate was irresponsible, handing the Discovery channel full control of her family.
  • Kate was ungracious to the good folks at the Discovery channel.
  • Kate is insanely controlling and micromanages every detail of her children, family, and life. She would never, ever let one thing go.
  • Kate threw years worth of personal journals, notes and emails in the garbage outside her house at the height of her divorce scandal, knowing the author and several other journalists were camped outside her house all the time.
  • The author, Robert Hoffman, disapproves of the way Kate uses her children to earn a living.
  • Robert used Kate's children to earn a living. 
  • Kate doesn't do her own grocery shopping.
  • Whole Foods is an hour away from her house, so Kate commutes. She does this without any consideration for Robert, who must follow her there on his own dime. 
  • Robert stands to gain nothing from this book, and is only writing it out of deep concern for the Gosselin children. He loves those kids!
  • Robert risked getting those sweet, innocent kids in trouble with the mother he fears may hurt them by sneaking them donuts, specifically because he knew they were not allowed to have them. It's possible he lured them into breaking two rules, since they probably aren't allowed to take candy from strangers, either. 
  • Robert has no agenda.
  • Robert and Kate's ex-husband are BFFs.
  • Kate doesn't care what you think.
  • Kate cares too much what you think.
  • Robert is a "Gosselin insider" who knows Kate very, very well.
  • Aside from one terse conversation, Robert has never spoken to Kate.
  • Kate doesn't do enough to protect her children from predators.
  • Kate is inexplicably hostile toward Robert, a strange man who stood outside her house and watched her children every day, making overt attempts to groom them (see: contraband donuts).
  • Kate is a germaphobe who is obsessed with cleanliness. This makes her cold and unfeeling.
  • Kate is a slob - the neatness was all Jon, who is neat because he is good.
  • Robert doesn't have to make a case here at all, because Kate does it herself. He will show you who she is in her own words.
  • Kate's has an interesting way of referring to herself. Her own words are third person paraphrases without quotes around them.
  • Kate is a terrible writer who blogs when she should be watching her kids!!! She also overuses exclamation points.
  • You think Kate writes that well-written blog herself? Think again! She has ghost writers.
  • In an ideal world, Kate would have come from a loving family, had parents and siblings who adored her, been shy with boys, dreamed every single night of the husband and children she would one day have, and eventually lived to see that dream realized.
  • Sadly, Kate's family was not loving, she was not shy with boys, she was obsessed* with the husband and children she would one day have, and eventually that dream was realized. 
I'm only at 18%. If I read further, I'm told I'll learn she's also guilty of animal cruelty. She didn't close her gate one day and her dogs got out, forcing her to have the aforementioned terse conversation with the author. At times, she has even mentioned loving her kids. Doesn't that seem a little suspicious? Everyone loves their kids. Why would you feel the need to say it, unless you didn't actually love them?

*Good girls passively dream, Bad girls actively obsess. I don't think I have to tell you what kind of girl Kate is. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What Have You Done For Me Lately? Everything, and Nothing

I'm 37-years-old, married, and perfectly healthy. I've carried two children to term without any life-threatening problems, and could probably do it again. I'm terrifically fond of my IUD. I can't say what it cost, because my insurance paid for it. My husband gets said insurance through his employer, and I must say, not making a fuss over the IUD was in every's interest. I'd be much more expensive without it.

In an indirect way, I think it adds to my physical and mental health, in the sense that neither of these things would benefit from an indefinite number of pregnancies and children. But that's not why it's here. It's here to keep me from getting pregnant. Because my husband and I do not want any more children. Other benefits are just bonuses. Mirena only has one job here, and it does it remarkably well. You'll be prying Satan's Tree from my cold, dead uterus.

Despite my 10-year-old daughter's insistence, it would be hard on my family to have another child. My husband's health is a concern, as is our financial situation. But the conversation never got that far. We decided to not to have more children before we knew Jeremy was sick, or and we were a little more optimistic that we wouldn't be broke forever than we are now. We stopped having children because we were done. That's all.

If I got pregnant with a third child, we would be shocked and very upset. Until we got over it, accepted it, and integrated it into our family, loving the heck out of it and wondering how we could have ever thought life was complete without it. Children numbers 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10? I think there would come a time when I didn't have it in me to be a fool for my kids anymore. I'd love them, but I wouldn't enjoy them. I'd rather not find out.

I don't have a dramatic story to tell, because birth control is in my life for the express purpose of keeping things uneventful. It does that job with admirable consistency. It's relieved me from something that, for the vast majority of human history, was just a part of life. A stressful, traumatic, time-consuming, energy sucking part of life. That I don't have to worry about more children is something my great-grandparents could never have dreamed of. As unimaginable as if you told me I never had to see a fly again (yes, I'm aware that flies are super-important to the ecosystem, but the point is, they're gross and I have to see them every day).

What's your story? Are you a kid with your own room? A woman who hates kids? A college student who only has one sibling, enabling your parents to pay your tuition? A man who has somehow not impregnated every woman you've ever been with, so you never, ever have to see that crazy girl you dated for two months when you were 17 again? An elderly widow who can't afford to send a birthday check to one more grandchild? Was your divorce relatively simple, because you had no children? Tell me your non-story.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Delivering Flowers, Crushing Dreams

I was in my late 20s. I was in graduate school, had a toddler, and I was planning a wedding that probably should have happened at least two years earlier. Still, one day it occurred to me that at one item on my bucket list might be easy to cross off. I could even earn a little money doing it.

I could get a job delivering flowers.

On an impulse, I started calling local flower shops. I didn't really expect to get a job, but before I knew it, I had one. The hours were long. The pay was low. The environment was hostile, but that didn't matter - I would be out delivering flowers. I would, of course, be the envy of all, but wasn't about the money or the status. I did it because I had always wanted to deliver flowers. It seemed ideal - I would drive around, alone, listening to music, connecting with other humans only to brighten their day. I was ecstatic.

The shop was owned by a couple in their 60s. The husband, David, took care of most of the customer service and other business. He was erratic, angry, and prone to jarring outbursts. On my first day, I met the other two employees. The assistant manager, Megan, was in her late 20s, and had no problem weathering David's temper tantrums. Within an hour, David tripped over something and flew into a rage, yelling "GODDAMMIT!"

One word, but it filled up the entire shop, leaving us with no clue what would happen next (nothing). It was momentarily terrifying, but I chalked it up to his planter fasciitis. The clerk, Simone, developed what I'm convinced was a real headache and went home sick. A few days later, her boyfriend came in to explain she was quitting because she was afraid of David.

"I didn't listen, because I don't talk to boyfriends," David explained, with as much dignity as he could muster. But listen he must, because Simone was not coming back. She was soon replaced by a 19-year-old boy named Sheriff, who was indifferent to David's temper.

David's main redeeming quality was his unquestioning devotion to his wife, known to him and everyone else as Mrs. Chong. This was curious to me, as they had been married for 35 years and David's last name was not Chong, but I never learned the story behind it. Mrs. Chong took care of the flower arrangements. David loathed all his competition, but was willing to do business with other flower shops in order to have flowers sent to his wife on a regular basis. After ordering them, he was always giddy with anticipation.

Quickly, I learned delivering flowers was not the glamorous occupation I'd dreamed it was. It was mundane and monotonous, exactly like I imagined delivering pizza would be. Only with very few tips, and semi-regular contact with dead bodies.

Unlike pizza, people are surprised to get flowers. At the time, I foolishly thought that "surprised" and "delighted" were synonyms, but they are not. Even if they're happy, surprised people don't react the way you hope they will. Surprise takes a few minutes to process. In this way, customers would probably have been happier to get pizza they'd ordered themselves and eagerly anticipated. More often, they were like deer in headlights when confronted with a surprise vase of roses.

Tips were a possibility, but just icing on the cake. I didn't expect them. Which was good, because they were very rare. In fact, I only remember it happening once, from a woman who apparently got flowers delivered to her so often she wasn't fazed by it. She handed me a few dollars she kept on hand for this exact purpose. Other than that, aside from the fact that they weren't expecting you and might not have petty cash on hand, by the time people understood that flowers had been delivered to them, I was long gone.

My first trip to a funeral home had me filled with, if you'll pardon the expression, morbid curiosity. I hadn't seen a dead body since I'd been to an open-casket funeral at the age of 4, and although I felt rather scummy, I was intensely curious. However, when I brought the flowers to their appointed destination at the front of the chapel, the guest of honor was surrounded by loved ones. I couldn't gawk. Still, the experience was meaningful in its own way.

Since I couldn't allow my eyes to linger too long on the body, I took in the mourners. The family members present were carbon copies of the same woman at different points in her life. There were 5 or 6 of them, from her early 20s to her mid-60s. All had the same face, long, blonde hair and glasses. The deceased, very elderly, had clearly looked much the same in life. The love in the room was palpable. There was a certain purity to their sadness. It seemed clean, unburdened by regret, guilt, anger or fear. The only real problem was how much they would miss her.

They wiped their teary eyes and nodded their heads in appreciation as I set the display next to the casket. Generally, I'm of the opinion that death is not our friend. I hate it and think we only scramble to find beauty in it because we have no choice. While this still held true, it was one of the times I came closest to appreciating the cycle of life. The woman's life was over, but her life's work was very much alive. I knew she'd been an amazing mother, grandmother, aunt. That would live on as long as her line did.

The unfortunate irony was that although surprise kept people from being thrilled to receive flowers, it didn't stop them from being disappointed when they didn't. One day, went through the drive thru at a coffee shop in the flower truck, which was clearly painted as such. As I waited in line, it dawned on me that this was an unkind thing to do. The barista would expect flowers, and was, at that very moment, rehearsing her reaction in her mind. It was too late to get out of line, so I waited sheepishly, feeling terrible.

I had anticipated correctly. The barista was a pretty, brown-haired woman in her 30s. When she realized I was there for coffee, her face fell. Of course she accepted my apology, and when I threw an extra dollar into the tip jar to make up for her disappointment, she said "You can read me like a book, I think."

One day, I arrived at work to find the largest assortment I'd ever seen to be delivered to one person. Flowers, potted plants, balloons, ceramic cats. By this time, I'd been working there long enough to know this was not good.

I drove them to an insurance office. It took four trips for me to deliver this pile of generic crap to a woman who looked resentful, but not surprised. I saw her struggling not to take her anger out on me, and appreciated it. Whoever had sent her all this was obviously a jerk. He had done something terrible, and judging from the exasperation emanating from everyone present, it wasn't the first time. I wasn't concerned with exactly what it was. Having them delivered to her office seemed like the ultimate manipulation, intended to win over her coworkers as much as anything. They weren't fooled. As I left for the office for the last time, one of the other women confirmed what I already knew.

"Yeah, he screwed up."

I worked there for a few weeks, seeing the thrilled reaction I'd hoped for exactly once. Accepting a job in order to indulge my own whim had been a stupid, thoughtless thing to do, and I felt guilty when I quit after working there for such a short time. I had done the math, and knew what to expect at minimum wage. But even as prepared as I was, my first paycheck was a grave disappointment. This wouldn't help my husband, daughter and I enough to make my absence worth it.

I gathered up all my courage and confessed that I was sorry to be unreliable, but I couldn't stay. I needn't have worried. To David, quitters came as no surprise at all. Megan was his one loyal employee. She accepted his unpleasantness because she hoped to one day take over the shop, and because she had come to view David and Mrs. Chong with a granddaughterly affection. Other than that, no one put up with his nonsense for long, no matter how much they needed the job. Knowing this, he hadn't even learned my name.