Category Archives: MESSY TOPIC CAVEAT

11/14/2017 – morning thoughts, late for work

Working out and paying attention to fitness is reminding me of my timelines:  relationship to food, others, self.

I was a skinny, happy kid.  I liked being fancy AND I was a total tomboy.  The nature of kidness for me was minimally gendered and all about fun.

When my grandfather started molesting me, I started gaining weight.  (Family photos show a sudden transformation from a laughing, long-haired sprite to a bulky, short-haired brick with a frown and tired eyes.)  I had already been discovering sexual feelings on my own, thank goodness for that, but I was also being heavily gendered and sexualized by an adult who bought me my first pair of heels and thigh-highs when I was nine years old.  We lived in the country. I had precious little human context, so whatever I saw from people seemed like what it all must be.

Moving around made me the new kid, not fat but chubby.  My first defense mechanism was brains — staying in at recess, reading books all the time, making friends with teachers and getting their approval.  I played sports for a while, but not well.  My second defense mechanism was humor.  At that age, it was a withering sarcasm, suitable as shield AND sword, a habit it took a long time to outgrow.

Junior high unpopularity waxed and waned.  I was borderline hysterical, going from a school an hour away (where my aunt was a guidance counselor, hissing at me between classes about letting her down, she bragged about me, the teachers aren’t seeing it, I’m a laughingstock and it’s All Your Fault!) to a home that was terrifying.  We were back living with my grandparents, and I was sleeping on a cot at the foot of my grandfather’s bed, tired all the time, scared to use or leave the bathroom or be alone with him, trying and failing to do my algebra homework, crying in the shower, getting chewed out by my mother and grandmother, thinking about the night time to come.

The summer before high school, I determined to be thin, funny, vivacious, blithely indifferent to anyone’s regard for me, and keenly aware of the effects I had on others.  There was no secret hope that this would make me popular; only that I would be loved by all. (I used to think that’s what popularity was; now I know better.)  I did it.

Skinny waxed and waned in college, but morale was sunk by my first boyfriend being a churl, and second boyfriend being a charming abuser with a scorching case of borderline personality disorder.  My looks were a comfort to me, as was the admiring attention of strangers.  I loved the interim times when I could just have anonymous encounters with strangers — relief, reassurance, gallantry on both sides, a pleasant memory, without strings or feels or fuckups. Occasionally running into “silent partners” in grocery stores or social situations, with nothing but a secret smile or open chuckle of acknowledgement, a grin to the host and inside joke with a fellow guest. My hat is off to you all; you did me more good than that one night!

Weight waxed and waned with depression in my first marriage, which was a mistake, but we did the best we could until giving up in 2000.  I didn’t get TRULY fat, EXTREMELY fat, until my current relationship — which started gloriously and turned scary for me, moving to a new town, struggling during the cementing phase of the relationship, fighting a lot, having no support or resources or career — but having access to a bottomless well of beer and quality Mexican food.

Wash, rinse, repeat until 2010-2011.  Relationship happy and smooth; grief from leaving my beloved and profitable first career behind as it was no longer either; beginning grad school.

It’s 2017.  I’ve finished grad school and associateship and am now licensed.  Still very happily married, but lots of personal stuff put to the side over the years…nearly 18 years now.  Enough time to grow up and get my shit together, I hope.  But what a colossal mucking out I need.  What an enormous debt to work down.  What austerity awaits me during what should be the prime of my life.  So much starting over.

But I did my best, did what I had to to survive.  I always said I’d pay for it later, and later seems to be now.

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11/13/17, appendment

For all I talked, yesterday, about needing to talk about my feelings rather than talk about my thoughts and shred my feelings with analysis, that’s exactly what I did.

How I felt: Shame, fit for a zealot in King’s Landing.

Shame:  I made all these bad choices, look at them; I’m wearing them on my frame.

Shame:  my fat and my lack of fitness are like an enormous debt run up on a secret credit card, with a super-high interest rate, that everyone can see.

Sadness:  when I was not at a gym, my bulk made me invisible; people looked away from my body.  (They didn’t seem disgusted, for the most part, and those who did were easy to dismiss — clearly they had their own problems.) But at the gym, people notice my degree of fatness.  Everyone checks each other out.  Some of these folks doubtless came from fatness, possibly even greater than mine.  But this big-bellied mess is what I brought to today’s bake sale, and it makes me sad.

Shame:  people also notice my degree of fitness, which is nil.  I am not one of the big bulky girls who have ***muscles*** and are hefting kettle bells in the weight room.  I am not one of the bountiful, cursive women doing strength/balance moves in the yoga room.  I am not one of the fluffy lionesses dancing joyfully for an hour of non-stop power in the ballroom.  I am not one of the giant girls pounding out miles on the ellipticals or in the swimming pool.  They are gorgeous and strong and lovely.  I am not them.

Sadness:  I don’t have nice workout clothes.  It’s my brain’s fault.  Nice things are too nice for me to wear generally — if I buy something nice (at a steal; it’s in my DNA), I set it aside.  If I buy nice workout clothes, I feel them as pressure, and resist the pressure, and eat to feel better, and grow out of them.

Some plain pleasure in my crummy workout clothes, combined with a notarized conviction that my low self-esteem is appropriate: my ten year old sports bra zips up the front, saving me from the struggle of pullover binding, which derails the process.  My craptacular store-brand tennies with Velcro closures help me avoid the pain of huffing and puffing while I tie laces (and have to bend, face-burning and belly in the way, to retie them.)  My old Men’s Size X? t-shirt is loose enough to smooth out some side rolls, but doesn’t hang and increase my bulk.  My workout pants, $12, are actually the nicest thing I have, and the panels are supportive, like a fancy bra.

But this is a package nobody ordered.  And the pleasures I feel are confirmations that I really don’t deserve nice things.

 

(“I wanted leis of ginger and orchid; what I ate were Lay’s, of sour cream and onion.”)

Panhandling: What Exactly is the Problem?

I have lived in very high panhandling zones, but I admit to not understanding the beef with it. If there are crimes of subsistence (squatting, stealing food) the problem is hunger and lack of shelter — and those are not problems I face, but problems the homeless face.  If the panhandlers harass, then the problem is harassment; if the panhandlers are assaultive, the problem is assault – and so on.  Assault and harassment (etc.) are the problems I experience personally, and I can usually avoid them or remedy them easily.   I am not sure how panhandling itself is a problem.  So far as I can tell, no one forces passersby to donate, but if they did, see “harassment”.

So are we talking about a problem I have?  Or am I trying to solve the problems faced by the homeless?   If the problem I have is homelessness generally, or drug abuse generally, then I can act on the system in ways I think will resolve those issues.  Homelessness and drug abuse in specific individuals, and particular classes of people, are problems individual persons within those groups face.

I feel a personal conviction to help people deal with their problems, if they want to accept my help and want to change their lives.  But if I have a problem with the way individual homeless people are managing their homelessness, or the way addicted people are handling their substance use, that is bullshit.

Me, in my comfy apartment, indulging in my own vices of choice, backseat driving a person who knows far better than I do what the consequences of those choices will be.  I imagine it might make a homeless person feel the way I do when my mother chides me for blowing as much money as I do on high-speed internet when my taxes have provided me with a public library card at no charge.  My mother believes that you don’t need web access, for example, to get a job that pays a living wage — that you can accomplish this by walking in off the street, using a pencil to complete a paper job application, and impressing the business owner with your earnest assertion that “any job I don’t know how to do, I can learn.”  The last time this got her a job was 1982, and she worked there until her rotator cuffs gave out and they fired her, almost three decades later.

I adore Maman, but she does not understand my lived experience.  She does not trust me to know what the fuck I am talking about when I try to explain.  She does not accept that I know my needs and resources better than she does.  But most importantly, she does not know that it is technically none of her goddamned business, and that she has no right to judge me.  She can indulge in freestyle social criticism all she wants, but she has no right to demand an explanation from me.  It is operating on incomplete data to make assumptions about my choices and then judge me based on those assumptions. (It’s also rude as hell, but that is a matter of manners, not morals.)

Analogy always fails in the end, but to take this a step further:  what if I ask her for money?  Must I spend it according to her terms?  The answer is that it depends on the agreement.  She might be more likely to lend me money if I justify need and swear that I have no other money to use to that end.  But say she were to give me money — out of the kindness of her heart, because it is my birthday, or whatever.  Do I have to spend it the way she wants me to?  Can I buy gin with it, even if my mother deplores alcohol?  Can I use it to pay for an abortion, even if my mother believes it is murder?  Is it my money, after she gives it to me, or is it still hers?

Again let me point out that she was not compelled in any way to throw me cash. Do I get to use it as I please, or not?

You can care about a person and still have unreasonable expectations and poor personal boundaries, of course, but let’s be honest: most of us in these United States were raised with the Puritan heritage of societal judgment of others rather than a sense of respect for others.  Respecting others does not mean assuming they have the ability and the inclination to make perfect choices or even “good enough” choices; it only means that you don’t get to judge or decide for others, just as they don’t get to judge or decide for you.  I’ve been asked, “How would you feel if you gave a buck to a guy who used it to buy drugs and died of an overdose?  Or would you just wash your hands of him and say it’s not your responsibility, that you’re not your brother’s keeper?”

First, I assure you that I feel sad.  People die of society’s choices and treatment all the time, and their own personal choices and behavior.  I’m sad for middle class functional alcoholics who did their best to keep up with the Joneses as they were taught.  I’m sad for rich old reptiles forever chasing money, because they loved their Daddies and their Daddies loved the dollar.   I’m sad for desperate Mormon housewives whose lips would never touch liquor but who have huge benzo addictions to match their ulcers.  I’m sad for everyone who hurts.  Am I their keeper, too?  I feel sad that people die of neglect, of diseases caused and worsened by drugs of abuse, and by exposure to the elements.  Depriving them of charity is not preventing their death by overdose, any more than my not buying them a cheeseburger is preventing their death by arteriosclerosis.

Don’t think I’m blind to the fallout in society.  But if a person gets all het up by homeless people scrounging for change and charity, making the streets dirty, and daring to expose us Good Folk to their addiction…but doesn’t get the same “we must make good choices for them since they cannot be trusted to make the choices we want them to make on their own” feelings about other groups harming society and the world at large (middle class consumption filling landfills, carnivores and coal and consumerism destroying the environment, the One Percenters living off slavery, the government bleeding dry the populace to accrue wealth and power to those who already have an excess – on and on)… then there is a disproportionate attention and blame given to a vulnerable population who is arguably the least able and/or resourced to change things — including themselves.

If far more harm is done by people who have the bottom layers of Maslow’s pyramid squared away, why is so much ire disproportionately directed away from the wealthy, the secure, the educated, the people with enough power and influence to do real harm?  You can despise all those groups, but who is most likely to suffer?  The homeless.  If you need to change something, change the system.  If you don’t feel the urge to give, don’t.  It’s that easy.  But if you are going to judge someone’s personal choices (or unpleasant necessities), maybe start with people who harm others, people acting from greed rather than need, people who are in a position to fight back.

Because homeless people get addicted for the same reasons other people do:  looking for escape from fear and burdens; looking to self-medicate pain; looking to relieve stress; looking to self-medicate mental illness (diagnosed or undiagnosed); looking to feel good for one goddamn hour for a change.  So let’s not judge them for having the same problems we do (to a much greater degree) or for handling it in much the same way.  That includes panhandling – and if you think people with resources don’t panhandle, allow me to introduce you to GoFundMe and Indiegogo and other crowdsourcing applications.

From people who are irritated by panhandlers, what I hear is that they are disturbed by the subsection of panhandlers who (a) seem to have other alternatives and/or (b) make any degree of money at it.  It offends their sense of rightness.

I am open to hearing more about the problems people have with panhandling.  It’s just been my experience that the root arguments, once the superficial BS has been lovingly peeled away, amount to, “It’s not fair that I have to work when all they have to do is beg.  I have to work, so they should have to work.”  For it was written, by Coolio and by a disputed author in the second epistle to the Thessalonians:  “(T)his we commanded you: that if any would not work, neither should he eat.”  It’s one of the classic Christian arguments against welfare of any kind, since pauperism and penury were considered to be immoral states and poor people were not in a state of grace.  When social workers fought to decriminalize destitution, many Christians disagreed.  But if trying to subsist as a homeless person is made illegal again, how are they to live?

Losing your home (if you ever had one) does not give you a heart of gold, a farmer’s work ethic, and Lifetime Network backstory of being a plucky saint who had a run of bad luck.

The individuals that I have met who were physically able but who declined opportunities for work included those who were confident in their panhandling skills but terrified of meeting “normal” demands to perform.  After having to live like an animal (and being treated like a stray dog by society,) not everyone has the confidence and dignity to step outside the place they feel a degree of confidence or mastery.  Somehow we accept that truth if the story is an ugly duckling who learns she is foreign royalty — however will I learn the ways of my betters? — but we reject it when a person who has no place to shower and no appropriate clothing and no goddamned toothbrush is scared (or angered) by the prospect of trying to fit in with people who sneered at her on the street the day before.  The tasks of passing for normal once you have endured more than a couple of weeks of having to shit and sleep in full sight of strangers can be daunting.  Some people would rather stick with what they know instead of further damaging their shredded self-esteem.  Some folks still have a defiant bravado, still have a lot of “fuck you” left in them — a lot don’t.

The experience of homelessness is one of invisibility and humiliation and danger, and the longer the trauma goes on, the harder it is to leave the war zone.  Most of the homeless people I’ve known have been assaulted on multiple occasions, had to steal or prostitute themselves for money, have suffered horrible intestinal and UT infections due to eating spoiled food and having no reliable hygiene, and had permanent losses in health or cognitive ability due to malnutrition, dehydration, and lack of treatment for other conditions including hypertension and thyroid imbalance.  Even those with no history of mental illness suffer depression, acute stress disorder, and PTSD secondary to living on the street.  Not to mention esteem and identity issues secondary to having been ridiculed and scorned and beaten and ignored.  This taught them how to regard themselves.  I can’t blame them for not feeling able, and I can’t blame them for occasionally saying “fuck you” — if you’ve learned to fight the hand that beats you, you’ll occasionally bite the hand that is trying to feed you.

(And some folks never entered the workforce.  If you have problems with attention and are not bright enough to compensate, you won’t be able to hold down the sort of boring and repetitive job that would get you into the workforce.  If you have a sensory disorder and are not bright enough to compensate, you will not be able to tolerate the low-level noisy / hot / smelly / nasty-textured demands of low-level jobs that would provide security.  If you are a kid who is kicked out as a minor for being gay / pregnant / whatever, chances are good you will develop a history of drug use and/or misdemeanor arrests before you are even legally old enough to work — so good luck getting into Harvard, or whatever else it takes to get a job these days.)

But back to our feelings about the role of substance use and addiction in homelessness.  Some folks have substance use habits that make them homeless; others pick it up after life changes that couldn’t be handled. But we’re not talking about how the homeless feel about drugs, or whether they are entitled to experience the same stages of change with regard to addiction and recovery that people with homes and jobs are entitled to.  I’m talking about people having opinions about drug use in other people — specifically, homeless people.

I wish I could create a flow chart to help people parse out how they actually feel about substance abuse and people with addictions, since again, the feelings that come out are usually strong, but you have to wade through All The Disclaimers; the layers of How I Think I Should Feel; and the list of Societally Approved Acknowledgements Because Everyone Has Problems I’m Sure.

Whatever.  Once you get past the lawyer’s page, some of the assertively expressed opinions I’ve heard again and again include:

“Sure, I drink like a fish – but I work for my money and buy my own booze, so I don’t have a problem.”  (Functional addiction is okay, but if I became homeless, I’d magically become a teetotaler.)

“Sure, I use prescription medication to cope – probably a little too much – but I have a really hard job and all these personal issues.  My meds keep me going.  But I take only prescribed medication under a doctor’s supervision – I don’t do street drugs.”  (Because you have worries, but homeless people have no worries.  They also don’t have full access to insurance, to authorized and empathetic prescribers, and to quality mental health care.  All homeless people are, one incorrectly assumes, eligible for Medicaid, and therefore are in possession of a sufficient degree of security and subsistence to be able to engage in insight-oriented treatment, which cannot occur in a traumatizing environment, and which is typically required to get Mommy’s Little Helper – or get into rehab.)

“I don’t blame the homeless for being homeless – but I’m not going to support drug addiction.”  (Sure, fine.  No one is saying you have to give. Just keep walking.  Or if you feel comfortable acknowledging a human being who has addressed you in a non-threatening way, do so.)

“I offered to buy a bum a sandwich and he told me to fuck off.  They don’t want food, just drugs.”  (Don’t pretend that homeless addicts have never bought a sandwich or a cup of coffee with panhandled cash.  But he didn’t ask you for food, he asked you for money.  If you don’t want to give money, fine.  If you really want to feed the homeless, walk up and offer homeless people food or restaurant vouchers.  But if your attempt at charity is conditional, and clearly denies agency to the recipient, particularly in a sneering way – “I would give you money but I don’t believe you can be trusted to spend it properly – i.e., in a way I personally approve” – then you are a patronizing asshole, and patronizing assholes don’t get told to Fuck Off nearly so often as would do them good.  Take that candid feedback to heart.)

But the most honest of the statements I hear regularly:

“They’re icky.”

“ They smell horrible.”

“I said no to one and he got mad at me – what the fuck!”

“ They just make me really uncomfortable.”

“I sat next to one on the bus and he had clearly shit himself some time ago – he had that cooked-in dirt all over him — I had to get up and move.”

“That dude was tweaking so hard he had pigeon feathers stuffed in his ears and was talking to people who weren’t there,” (insert other positive or negative symptoms of schizophrenia, et cetera.)

To compare, the most recent chronically homeless client I’ve worked with presented as exactly fitting the profiles mentioned above.  A lot of staff hated this person because this person was prone to impulsive aggression, wanted LOTS of drugs RIGHT NOW, had to be coaxed to eat or wash or change clothes, and stood too close when speaking.  Just another tweaker.  Don’t bother setting up services; you know that person will just walk out and go looking for drugs again.

Knowing the person’s story since birth, from records prior to the initial homelessness and drug abuse, gave me more empathy.  Given the person’s drug-induced cognitive impairment, I might know more about TP’s history than TP remembers at this point. TP had come from an ostensibly good home, but one filled with physical and emotional abuse behind closed doors.  TP had been raised in a religion that believes there is no such thing as mental illness and that TP only needed prayer to get better.  TP got married and had a child — but spouse took child and fled when TPs symptoms got high.  TP was left penniless, homeless, depressed and brokenhearted, not trusting psychiatry, impaired by mental illness, and learning to rely on street drugs — but still young and healthy.  After being assaulted in a homeless shelter, TP could not abide sleeping in a room full of other people — it couldn’t be safe.  This led to isolation on the streets, stealing food, prostitution, jail time, and health problems including STDs galore, Hep C, renal failure from dehydration, and permanent cognitive impairment from being beaten and from living on booze and pills.  TP’s life was a direct line from a childhood trauma to the street.  But I’d give TP a buck any day.  It might go to a sandwich, or it might go for a hit.  Either way, it might keep TP from having to steal, or blowing a john.  Or getting sneered at by someone who has all the things TP lost.

So.  As much as circumstances are against some people at birth, and even those born to much may lose it and fall, there is no child on the playground who dreams of being a homeless addict.  There is no young adult who has a broad variety of options and selects homelessness and addiction as the preferred future life to build.  There is no mature adult possessed of judicial capacity and under no duress who calmly and thoughtfully declines a life of health and safety in favor of danger, discomfort, and misery.

You may not have compassion for people who are homeless and addicted.  You might feel certain that if you had a change in circumstances (due to external situations beyond your control, of course, and not any poor choices of your own) that you would perform better.  You might well be correct.  But not everyone has your confidence, your training, your health, your mental acuity, and your long history of having done well enough to feel confident you can attain that state once more.  Don’t look at all your assets and say, “If I can do it, anyone can!” – you  might be blind to how much you have going for you.  And you sure as hell have no clue what That Person was up against.

The Christians are Wearing Me Out

Sorry, Coach.  I have tried and tried to come to common ground with my former flock, and time and time again, they have made me regret it.  They get to say whatever they feel:  that God either acts or permits action; that God is Great and is In Charge; that anything not done by God is allowed by God.

They are literally on the topic of personal crime — violence against vulnerable others — and talking about how God allows it.  For Reasons.

And *I* am the bad guy for simply saying that anyone who could stop violence against the vulnerable, and does not stop it, is terrible, horrible, no-good, and definitely not worth worship.  For some reason God gets worshiped despite behavior you would not accept from an antisocial thug.

Many people I love are believers.  I used to be one myself.  When I did believe in God, it cut me *to the bone* to know that my God — the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent — saw what was happening to my early-grade-school-self and did nothing.  I broke up with God over that.  But I am unable and unwilling to break up with my family…despite the fact that they know all this and worship Him anyway.  It’s as if His need to be worshiped is more important than a child’s pain.  In their understanding of the universe, He watched what was happening to me and did nothing.  I do not give two shits what His ineffable rationale might have been; it could not possibly be good enough.

And if it sounds selfish for me to say that:  think, thou, on a neighbor kid…a grandma…your dad, your mom, your favorite person in the world…watching a child get assaulted…and staying glued to the peephole without intervening, without calling for help, without lifting a finger.  Would it not change your view of that person?  If so, why does it not change your view of your God?

And if it does not change your view of that person, why do you think that person’s inaction was okay?  Serious answers only, people.  Trusting that someone had a good enough reason, if you’re an adult, means you have an idea of what that reason might look like.  And if you are going to try to explain how an omnipotent being had to allow a child to get hurt for some reason, you don’t understand what “omnipotent” means.

Life taught me that people get to mistreat me with impunity, so I don’t ask that you explain why bad things happened to me.  Just explain why it happened to the other kids.  Why they deserved it.  Or why you worship someone who believes in harming kids who *don’t* deserve it.

The Cousin I Knew

When I was so young that my parents were still together, but so old that we had already moved out west, I got to meet my mother’s sister’s sons for the first time.  Back east, the cousins on my dad’s side looked like me:  white blonde, with a spattering of tiny freckles.  In summer, we played outside constantly — this was the time before sunscreen, mind you — and we still looked like underdone toast.   My boy cousins there all had buzz cuts or high’n’tights thanks to the triple influence of military, poverty, and the South.

We moved to one of the big square states in the West and my folks enrolled in college.  I went to Head Start and married one of the boys in a single-ring (pop can pull-ring) ceremony behind the colored block bin.  Meanwhile, my folks split up and Mom headed even farther west to live with her mother and stepfather.  Dad caught up and they tried to make a go of it again.  Mom and Dad divorced for the final time close to when my aunt’s marriage ended.  Aunt moved two towns over from us, bringing the two boys she and her ex had adopted off different reservations.  They bracketed me in age, and they were my best and most consistent friends over years of local relocations.

They blew my mind.  Their mom was a college-educated liberal, and it was the 70s.  She let them wear their hair very long, and fought the school to keep it that way to respect their families of origin.  She let them swear, en famille, but not in front of old people or anyone upset by it.  They had a regimented daily chore list, where my single mom and I lived with Grandma, who did everything.  My aunt kept her menstrual cycle noted on the kitchen calendar so they could be aware of her PMS.  It was as unlike my home as you could get.  In childhood we had occasional visits, and I lived for them — I was in a highly rural home with no kid neighbors — but around junior high we ended up in the same school district.

The older cousin was the one I was most like, and I spent a lot of time with him.  He was bright and funny and chubby and always laughing, very outgoing, infinitely curious.  His mother took a close interest in him and helped him in every way.  She got him a job for pocket money, bought him books and study tools, got him music lessons, and made sure he learned about his Native American heritage.  He got straight As in all the hardest classes, played in jazz band competitions.  He became a diehard Christian, and this brought him even more praise and approval.

His brother, two years younger, was the exact opposite.  Slim, quiet, prone to anger (but always eager to laugh) with a short attention span and no interest in school or books or learning. He was often left out of conversations between his mother and brother, even asked to leave, because he was not able to talk about (or interested in) the subject at hand.  He fought for his mother’s regard, but he didn’t try to imitate his brother to get it. He loved sports, but not school sports; he was a pool lifeguard in summer and a ski lifeguard in winter.  He made good money once, posing for a painting, but that was the extent of his modeling career.  He was unambitious, and always hungry for attention.

I trailed my older cousin like a comet, joining his group of friends whenever I could.  They were intelligent, witty, fun, and came from good families.  Aunt even let me come to one of their sleepovers (although she required me to sleep in her bed alongside her, which was not my preference but more than fair.)  I followed them, and I had great conversations with my older cousin, but we weren’t close in an emotional sense.  We could talk about very emotional things, but we didn’t feel them together.

My time with my younger cousin was again the opposite.  He would drop by and say, “Hey, Cuz, how’s it going?” and we’d make pointless small talk.  Sometimes he would tease me for being soft (I was anorexic at the time, but had no muscle tone) and flex his muscles at me, or he would ask if any of my friends would go out with him.  Very brotherly.  I would roll my eyes and shrug it off and see ya next week.  But on a regular basis, he would show up and say, “Here, sit down, just listen to this, tell me what you think.”

I remember sitting next to him, both of us still and quiet, listening to Robert Plant singing, “Sea of Love,” just blown away.  He came over once and asked me to cut his hair, which thrilled me — he was wearing his hair short and this was a very trusting request.  I gingerly cut his hair, a few strands at a time, while we listened to Robert Palmer sing, “Lonely Tonight,” a song that still runs through my head.  He gave me his Julie Brown tape, and “Goddess in Progress” became anthematic to me.  He would show up when my boyfriends came over, trying to top dog them a little, before giving me a hug and going off to his own fun.

One time he brought me a rose.  Just a single bouquet rose, not a long-stem — a dollar a pop at my favorite florist, with a little ming fern and a stem of babies’ breath.  It was out of the blue, and I was touched.  I fully understood that it was not a big investment, and that it may have been purchased for a date who stood him up.  And he knew that it would not be a sweeping moment for me, since I had been dating a boy for months who brought me a dozen roses every weekend and the dead bouquets were strung to dry all over the house.  This only happened one time, but it was typical: he would make a gesture, and I would be receptive.  He never had a steady girlfriend, and he had been progressively more alienated from his mother.  It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I might have been the only supportive female in his life, the only girl he was close to.

When I went off to college, he started having problem with alcohol and the law.  One summer, when I was still skinny and blond and on a break from my school beau, I ran into him while out cruising on Saturday night.  I had been flirting with a hot boy who was a year behind me, still in high school and chasing me hard.  When my cousin waved and shouted from a passing care, the flirt — who was the son of a very successful local doctor; my grandmother had begged me to date him while I was in school — said, “You know that stinky Indian?”  I stared him straight in the eyes and said, “That ‘stinky Indian’ is my cousin, and I love him very much.”  My tone was icy.  The flirt tried to make up, but didn’t apologize.  I let him squirm for a while and then ditched him.  This was not the first time something like this happened, but it was probably the last.

I went back to school, and cousin’s behavior got worse.  Aunt kicked him out, and my mom let him move into her attic, even gave him the car she originally promised me.  But I came home to find his attic room empty, except for some personal items and a forgotten cassette, which I appropriated and listened to on repeat — the first album by the Violent Femmes.  I finished school, got depressed, struggled to get my life on track, and didn’t come home for years.  I heard from Mom that he went to jail, went to rehab, went into Job Corp.  Mom whispered that he was physically and sexually assaulted while in jail, and suffered permanent harm including hepatitis.

My heart broke for him.  But there was no way to be in touch.  He loved long, pointless, frequent phone conversations, and used to call out of the blue with nothing to say, just hoping for someone to distract and amuse him. I was (am) phone-phobic in the extreme, strongly preferring to write letters — definitely not his strong suit.  We had never had a pattern of rich communication anyway.  But we had that shared feeling of sadness, and struggle, and support whenever we were together.

Years later I came home for older cousin’s wedding.  I knew everything about older cousin, as Aunt’s letters always detailed his latest string of accomplishments, but they never mentioned younger cousin.  It was great to reconnect with him.  He was happy, working regularly, and had been dating a dark, slender beauty who never left his side.  She brought no chaos to his life and handled his bad behavior without drama.  I was distracted by my own crumbling marriage and feelings of failure in life, not to mention the ambivalence of visiting my hometown after years away, but I was happy for him.  Over the next twenty years, I visited very rarely, but visits always involved a family dinner that he would join.  These time-lapse snapshots showed the changes in his life:  the pretty girlfriend became a smiling but haggard wife; they became parents of a darling girl he adored; and then gave her a precious baby brother.

Our lives couldn’t have been more different.  I got a divorce, stayed away, never had kids; he worshiped his children and saw his wife as a real partner even though his nose was always open to the ladies.  Years later, I found the man of my dreams and have been happily monogamous since the day we got together.  Cousin stayed home and became a dutiful son; I remained the prodigal child and designated black sheep.  We both got fat, drank too much, and struggled to keep the family times positive and friendly rather than bitchy and judgy.  He would always leave early (with my mother and sister snorting and huffing and hissing “so he can keep boozing!”) — but he would always give me a long, tight bear hug and say, “Love you, Cuz. You should come home more.  And call me sometime, okay?”

The drinking caught up with him.  And the hep.  I imagine his life of construction work played a role, too, not only in terms of wear and tear, but medication.  Every guy I knew who worked in hard physical ways tore through the NSAIDs like candy.  And let’s not forget the stress.

After a brief period of abdominal illness, great pain, and repeated hospitalizations, he died on the last Thursday of 2016.

I didn’t go home for the funeral, which was yesterday.  I haven’t called his mother or his widow, or written, or sent a card.  Wrong of me, but I can’t bear it.  If we lived in the same town, I could be present.  I could grieve with them and they would know I wasn’t being callous or indifferent.  But I don’t have words.  The connection I had with him was not like that.  It was sitting together, feeling the music, smiling and nodding, and a bear hug at the end.  I can hold it together at work, and I can make small talk with friends, but I cry a lot, and when I least suspect it. I never could have made the trip home.  I never could have left without that hug.

We never minded the long absences.  We were tight.  Nothing ever came between us.  I just can’t think of this as permanent.  It’s just another time apart.

 

 

Quarterly Report: A Compression of Horrible Events

(Or: the Daughter, the Sister, the Aunts, and the Cousin)

Part One:  The Daughter

End of September, my honey gets a call from his hometown:  his second daughter (who stopped speaking to him years ago) is in the hospital.  She was visiting older daughter and had a scary-bad headache, which they diagnosed as a brain aneurysm (later modified to subarachnoid hemorrhage.)  They treated it with medication only (which was good) and kept her inpatient at a superior facility (which was good) but the hopes for recovery were very much not good.  She was unable to complete sentences or thoughts, had impaired motor control, etc., and then we heard nothing.  Older daughter was busy taking care of business, what with insurance and doctors and her sister’s ex in Arizona refusing to take their infant back.  Meanwhile her job, college courses, and care for the three young children she raises on her own made demands of their own.  Can we go home to help?  With what money, to do what?

Of course, her mother — her thieving, abusive, mentally ill, drug addicted, but very loving and codependent mother — was going to hop a flight and come take care of her daughter and her grandchild.  I hated to hear this, since she was the one who knowingly put this child in the hands of molesters and abusers; she was the one who kept this child out of school for years of her young life; she was the one who did meth with the child; she was the one who taught the girl how to be a criminal.  But daughter adores mother and needed her.  Naturally, my already acute frustration with a family that does not know what questions to ask doctors, and phrases things in the  most dramatic, catastrophizing, inaccurate ways (true to their Southern heritage) became staggering.  (Or maybe I’m an asshole for thinking it’s better to ask a doctor about a prognosis than it is to make wild statements about how She’s Going To Be A Vegetable Forever And Ever!)  Part of my frustration was stifled anger, of course.  I never keep things from my husband, and it took a force of will to keep my mouth shut, but his daughter’s condition is one almost always caused by trauma recent or remote — exactly the kinds of trauma she experienced in the care of Evil Mom, during their years off the grid and out of his reach.  The idea of Evil Mom showing up as nursing angel made my chest tight with rage.  But the news dried up.  We heard nothing.  Perhaps she did save the day.  Bless her if she did, right?

Then the “hearing nothing” phase turned into “mother never showed.”  Second daughter checked out AMA, went home to her local boyfriend, wrote a note, smiled and laughed, kissed him goodnight, and took all of her pills.  Back in the ER, back inpatient, heart breaking.  Idiot boyfriend didn’t catch on for a long time and then called sister instead of 911.  Second daughter, in a coma.  Good brain activity, but completely unresponsive.  Yours truly, furious that no social work / case management had occurred.  And again the news dried up.

After waiting patiently, we begged for more news.  Oh, she’s fine.  I think.  Constitution of a meat axe, that girl.  She woke up.  Evil Mom arrived, checked daughter out AMA (again), and took her back to their hometown in Arizona, meth capital of the west.  The end, no moral.

Part Two:  Intermission:  No Music, One Aunt

So this takes us to mid-late October, a brief respite before the horror show that was the US election.  It’s been covered extensively elsewhere.  I’ll spare you the sick stomach and heartache.  But November was also fraught for me and mine.  More health scares.  The loss of loved ones.  The loss of beloved pets.  Assaults at work.  The failure of a tax measure in my state that will deprive the elderly and the infirm of care and keep their basic needs unmet — not to mention making thousands of working families unemployed.  Brace yourself for homeless and unmedicated children, old people, veterans, mentally ill and developmentally disabled people.  With lots of pressure at work and the prospect of unemployment for me (and still no employment for my spouse), this started a process of negativity, fear, stress, and simply being in shock all the time — still the backdrop for my life, but a fresh hell that began here.

About this time, my mom’s cousin, a dear lady who means a lot to me, had a stroke and went into a nursing home.  She was one of those folks we grow in the northern states:  hardy, brisk, sweet, sarcastic, unemotional, hardworking, loyal, and with a robust joy and determined good nature that kept her ancestors afloat as prairie farmers.  She was a salon owner in the 80s and I owe a voting share of my first burst of confidence to her, for she lovingly cut, colored, and permed me into a state of social elevation.  She gifted me with Camaro Hair.  And now she is tearful, mute, and desperate, because incapacity is what we fear.  She won’t cooperate with PT, engage in activities, or talk to anyone but my mother.

And my mother, in the anti-therapeutic tradition of the northern US, chided her for being weak, chided her for not turning to Jesus with gratitude for her life, chided her for being afraid.  When I asked if anyone was treating her for depression, Mom got angrily defensive, and listed all the many people who showed up to tell her to “snap out of it.”  My pointing out that this is not an effective treatment for depression revealed that my mother believes therapy to be Satanic, that it makes things worse, that it is “the petting of the flesh” and not of God.  I knew she was that way about psychology and long-term, non-problem-focused therapy, but I had taken pains to explain that short-term, goal-oriented treatment is different.  I thought she got it.  Instead, I got an earful of why my new career is occult bullshit.  Not true, but it hurt to hear my mother say it to me, especially after her hearty endorsement of my career change, going back to school, and reshaping my life.

Part Three:  Aunt the Second and Sister the First

The backdrop for this battle:  my sister and mother drew a line in the sand with my local aunt.  This aunt was another saint to me from junior high through college, and the (adoptive) mother of my two cousins, boys who were like brothers to me.  The good son, whom she worships, went to West Point and Harvard, and is a published professor with a published-professor wife who started a foundation, writes books, and is a MacArthur Fellow (winner of the “genius grant”).  But Aunt’s local son worships her — even though he was always a bad boy, dropping out of school, getting arrested for DUIs, etc.  She kicked him out young and wished him luck with his alcohol abuse, but he was her shame, even though he eventually got married and got work and came running whenever she needed a job done.

This aunt has a long and mixed history with my sister.  Their relationship turned weird.  Auntie became domineering, demanding, and insulting; sister became passive, and very resentful of the domination, but did not say anything.  I am not a victim-blamer, but I also know that if you are dancing with someone who keeps stepping on your feet, and you don’t ever utter one goddamned peep, it is not appropriate to stew in silent resentment of this person who is treading on you.  If you feel too much is being asked, it is incumbent on you to say no.  If you feel overused or ill treated, it behooves you to speak up.  It is never okay to mistreat someone, but if you are going along with it, it’s not out of line to assume you just have a funky boundary dynamic that might mean you’re actually really close.

So my sister puts her foot down — but not about her own issues; instead, she insults the aunt by accusing her of worshiping her older son and “trying to force the rest of us to worship him too”.  Oh shit; shots fired.

Remember, this family is diehard backwoods Christian.  Idolatry is a horrible accusation.

Lots of drama, lots of she-said/she-said.  Aunt says, “you’re dead to me”.  Mom says, “if she’s dead, I’m dead.”  Sister huffs and puffs on her high mountain, wondering why her righteous accusation did not result in Aunt modifying her behavior and mending fences — after all, that’s what Sister herself does when Mom pulls that shit on her.  Isn’t that the way the world works?

Sister asks me to talk to Aunt about all this.  I say sure, but what do you want from it?  If you think she’s going to apologize, she’s not, and if you want to reconcile with your abuser (for things really went down that path eventually), I don’t know if that’s a great idea to me but it is up to you.  Sister beats around the bush, but intently.  “I just want her to know how much she’s hurt me, and she won’t talk to me so I can’t tell her myself.”  Okay, but what is the outcome you want?  Are you trying to punish her for hurting you?  Are you trying to demonstrate why her apology would help?  Are you hoping for reconciliation ? “I just want you to tell her.”

This aunt did not speak to me for years.  When Mom and Sister were fighting with Aunt, they used Good Cousin’s standing me up years ago as the example of Why You Shouldn’t Worship Him.  Of course Aunt came to his defense.  But she didn’t ask me for my side, and so she never knew that I didn’t give two hoots about being stood up after the first flush of anger.  Mad at the time?  Sure.  Grudgy?  Heck no.  So I was pissed that Mom and Sis used me as a tool against Aunt, and pissed at Aunt for not finding out from me how I felt.  But this whole non-issue was the excuse for their fight.

Part Four:  The Cousin

When I visited Home last spring, my local cousin pulled me into his truck and begged me to talk to his mom, my aunt, on the phone.  He dialed and held it to my ear.  She was stiff, but I wasn’t, and having some small talk warmed her up a little.  No frost in my tone.  I made some humorous self-deprecating remarks, and asked about good cousin’s family, and she was getting on a roll when she lost her nerve, had to go, bye now.  Cool.  And cousin was shaky with relief — he loves us all and hates for us to be fractured.  I said to his wife later, quietly:  if it weren’t for him, I think this family would just break apart.  She nodded vigorously and said, “Yes.  Yes.  I totally agree.”  Not happily.

Cut to December.  My local cousin was feeling crummy and went to his chiropractor  / naturopath for help.  His wife works for this dude, so they get a discount.  He did some kind of cleanse and had abdominal cramps that took him to the hospital.  They admitted him, drained more than a gallon of fluid from his abdomen, and told him to rest for a few weeks.  His construction job said they would take him back, but they needed the money — one in grammar school and one in diapers, which a part-time office worker can’t support.  But my cousin could not even drive due to confusion and pain.  Rehospitalizations occurred.

The family did not handle this well.  Cold, damp weather aggravates Mom’s rheumatoid, and she won’t take so much as an ibuprofen for it.  She becomes, for want of a better term, mean as catshit.  The pain is crazy-making and she can’t think well, but she is good at being mean and hard to avoid.  She and Aunt are back on speaking terms, but Mom keeps saying shitty, withering things — while Aunt goes into flights of fanciful hope, Mom deals with fear by being snotty and hard-hearted.  Sister goes into full judgment mode, unable to mention Cousin without referencing his addiction, and always in the most harsh and denigrating way, without an iota of compassion, and the joke is on you if you think her Christianity is tainted by any sincerity or kindness.  She is also unable to mention Aunt  without resentful, accusatory butthurt.  Any hint that a very sick person could at least be spoken of without reference to his always showing up at family gatherings with alcohol on his breath were met with the rapid and righteous chorus of “But It’s The TRUTH”, and a litany of why “I’m not going to pretend he’s not an alcoholic just to cater to your bleeding heart liberal bullshit.”

Called Aunt at first hospitalization.  I had been postponing this due to the unclear message from Sister on what she wanted from the conversation, but how often does my younger, stronger cousin go to hospital?  We talked for 45 minutes and it began in a fraught way, but Aunt can’t help but pepper her language with obscure references, and I can’t help but snort and answer back.  There was some of the sweet feeling when someone really gets your little ways and is right there with you.  And we ended by cheering each other up about Cousin, thinking about how soon he would feel better, and this might be what helps him to lasting change, and hey, why not hope?  It was a good call.

Afterward, I was busy thinking about how this could be a good groundwork for a LOT of family reconciliation — that if Aunt trusted me, I would not betray that trust, but I would try to push things back on the rails with her and Sis.  Naturally, this was more of my bleeding heart liberal bullshit.  Sister emailed the next day, cold and cryptic, asking for a good time to call.  Then there was some cold and cryptic questioning.  Apparently Aunt called Mom right away to say we had had such a great talk and “I’m glad at least ONE of your children gets my sense of humor!”  Sigh.

I said Yeah, and?  It was tactless, but that is the beginning of her acknowledging that there is a real gap between you, and there is.  It’s a start.  If you thought that she was going to call in abject humiliation to beg forgiveness, you know that’s not ever going to happen.  And if you thought that my conversation with her was going to be a call out of the blue to heap abuse on a mentally ill 75 year old woman whose younger child was just hospitalized, you know that’s not the way I would do things either.  This was just an opener.  What is the problem?

Sister’s tits were calmed a bit, but she said something that rocked me:  when Mom told her about the call from Auntie, Mom said, “She must have sold you out.”  The fact that my mother would assume that I would do that was a punch in the gut.  I have never and would never do that.  This changed the conversation. Sister didn’t back away from that (of course she didn’t; “But It’s The Truth”) but suggested I talk to Mom.  I said I would need to think about that for a while.

Because the fact is:  I never told my sister that the grandfather she adored, the man who raised her as a father, molested me when I was in grammar school and she was in the crib.  She found out later, and we have discussed it obliquely.  But we have the understanding that her experiences were different from mine, and we both had valid experiences for all they were so different.  I actually referenced this when I said I would talk to Aunt, because I know what it’s like to have no one on your side against a family member who has hurt you.  I said I would have to work up to it, and she accepted that, or at least accepted that she had to wait for me to find the right time.

Part Five:  Code, and Coda

I didn’t have the chance.  Cousin got worse and worse, in and out of the hospital, more and more fluid drained from his abdomen.  My sister did dwell on his alcoholism, but only once acknowledged that he got hepatitis when he was a teenager after being violently sexually assaulted in jail.  My cousin died in the hospital (where my grandmother, my mother, and I all worked) on the 30th of December, 2016.  He’ll get a post of his own.  But the aftermath is here and now.

His wife ploughed into action:  had him cremated, did all the death tasks, arranged for a memorial potluck at her boss’s church, officiated by her boss’s pastor, and attended by her family and the friends and coworkers of her and my cousin.  Mom is too crippled to attend — she couldn’t even see Cousin in the hospital.  Sister might not be welcome — she never got along with the wife.  I can’t go due to work and money and an ice storm.  Even his brother, the Good Cousin, already had a trip planned that he is is attending rather than changing — so even his own brother won’t be there.  And Aunt’s twin sister, like Mom, is crippled by arthritis.  She plans to send wife the money she would have used to travel.

I am just sad.  So fucking sad.  The last time we all came together was for Good Cousin’s wedding, twenty years ago, but we’re all staying home from Local Cousin’s memorial.  I admit that as much as I want cremation for myself, having no burial or interment makes the event uncentered for me; all of our people are in the same cemetery by the park where we used to swim.  I find it right and proper that his widow’s wants are everything right now, and she has arranged things to her taste.  I don’t believe she would be happy to see us, and might have a resentful thrill at our absence more than any hurt for her man.

But my poor Aunt will be alone among strangers at his funeral today.

My heart breaks for her.  But I will say it here, among silent friends:  her adoration of her older boy, with his genius, his talent, and his sweet good humor (now lost to pompous  amour-propre) excluded her younger son, with his raw physicality and disinterest in school.  He was the black sheep.  He spent years trying to gain her adoring regard for himself, and she let him do that with thanks but no love.  When his older brother, my Good Cousin, found the kin that gave him up for adoption, he changed his name to theirs and traveled to see them every year.  That’s fine.  He let Aunt come stay with his family for months every year to provide free childcare.  And she was thrilled to do it for her older son, much as her younger son would get out of bed in the middle of the night for her, and drive to her house from two towns over to do some minor errand  at her whim.

My local cousin never wanted to find the blood relatives who gave him up for adoption.  When the topic would come up, he would look at me with those black sea lion eyes and say, “This is my family, right here.”

My poor cousin.  Martyr to our family’s dysfunction. And his funeral today, the day after the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. And I endured her funeral apart from my family, babysitting Aunt, who was making crude jokes and and snide comments in my ear the whole time.  The grandmother I adored was the mother who used to beat her with a broom, and cursed her for a liar when she accused her uncle of raping her.  This same aunt took me in days after the funeral when I had an allergic reaction at Mom’s house and couldn’t breathe.  Mom paid for my urgent care visit and my inhaler, but viciously and persistently insisted that I hated her and hated home SO MUCH that it was giving me a panic attack.

Ladies and gentlemen:  my family.

(da capo)

My dream is that sometime in summertime, we can all come home to celebrate him.  The weather will warm the bones of the old ladies.  My good cousin and his wife will bring their kids to play where my cousins and I played, at the house my great-grandmother built, where my grandmother and mother and I have lived, and Mom lives still.  My aunt and sister will have had time to reconcile, if they are going to, and we can remember my cousin in his natural habitat — in the mountains, at the lake, in the grassy yard where we ran and wrestled.  His widow can come and bring his kids, but she knew a man we didn’t.  This will be for us, and the boy we knew, and the family we used to be.

A Bad Day

Tuesday was the anniversary of Grandma dying.  It was a hard day for me, but it’s the worst day of the year for Mom.  I called home with the determination to be calm, soothing, cheerful, and untouched by her dangerous tendency to pick fights when she is feeling vulnerable.
Sure enough, Sister was there, and doubtless she had put in hard time supporting Mom all day to that point, and it’s a very hard day for her, too.  But in the cause of “let’s support Mom by egging on her worst tendencies”, Sister told a story (this is all on speakerphone, which I hate) about a gay cowboy who was a judge on America’s Next Top Model who was from home.  She and Grandma used to “see that little fruit selling his shirts”, etc.
At this point, Mom laughs at the language and they both pause, waiting for me to jump in with what I’m thinking, which is JESUS FUCK, you people, I love you and you know I’m not just PC, I’m bisexual, and it really hurts my feelings when you pull shit like that. I know you’re quoting Grandma, but there’s a reason you’re telling this particular story, at this particular time.
But I know that if I say anything, it will incite them to Drama — a chance to be horrified that I would be so ridiculously hypersensitive, deeply offended that I would accuse them of bigotry, and artificially enraged that I would take Grandma’s name in vain over taking exception at her favorite slur for gay men.  “Grandma loved gay men!  You know that!”
The real purpose is to provoke a catharsis, to put the burden on me to provide them the opportunity to vent their feelings, which we desperately need and which we are culturally prohibited from expressing assertively.  No feels, please; we’re Norwegian farmers.
And finally, it would give them a path to follow for future carefully engineered interactions:  them bringing up or referring to homosexuality using ponderously artificial non-offensive language to cater to my perceived hypersensitivity, with or without complaint (“I don’t know if I’m saying that correctly”, “– or whatever those people are insisting we call them these days”, “But I’m sure you’ll inform me immediately if I’m not doing exactly what those people would prefer”, etc., etc.)  I always ignore this and move on, and then they bitch about it together behind my back.
This process provides an opportunity for them to bond by excluding someone else, and this time around, the outsider happens to be me.  I’ve been included in this process many times over the years, on both ends, and as an observer.  It’s common in our passive-aggressive, non-assertive, “Minnesota Nice” community.  I know it well.  It’s one of the reasons I moved away.
I live far enough away and see them so infrequently that I’m now a safe target rather than a safe confidant.  I wasn’t a target for a long time, because they knew it would just keep me away longer, and because I would, without fanfare, take a vacation from our communication until I could do so with a clear mind and a whole heart.  I am a sufficiently terrible correspondent under normal circumstances that this is not necessarily taken as the cold shoulder.  I go without writing people I would love to be in touch with as well as the ones I kind of can’t stand, so there is no way to be sure.
Then Mom goes into a story about Jim Nabors being treated for liver cancer at the hospital where she used to work, at the beginning of the AIDS awareness period, and sowing all these shitty comments about how “THEY” kept thinking it was “prejudicial” for us to use masks to clean their meal trays,  “prejudicial” to make them use disposable silverware, “prejudicial” not to go in their rooms without face shields and gowns.  “I mean, how in the world could anyone think it would be prejudicial not to want to catch AIDS?”
And since it is what it is, I flatly said, “Because that’s not how you catch AIDS.  HIV can’t be transmitted that way.”  We both had to repeat the interaction twice, verbatim.  Mom couldn’t find a way to pick a fight and eventually headed back to her point, gamely but lamely tying it to the “brush with celebrities” topic that got them talking about gays in bigoted ways, and I got back on track with my mission:  giving Mom supportive attention on her hardest day of the year.
I said I missed home, and snow, and everyone — all true — and that I wished I could bring Honey home on the train — he’s never been on a train — and see the beautiful countryside.  Mom jumped on this, hard, and with great feeling.  She said that would be wonderful and she’d pay and oh please oh please and I said I would try to get time off and we’ll see.  This went on for some time.  I didn’t give her a fight, and I’m glad, but I feel terrible for making her miss me, and especially terrible for throwing a possible visit out there when I felt so hurt by her and Sister’s ugly words.  I wasn’t trying to turn the tables.
And all day I felt sick with grief because any time I spend there will be too long, and not enough.  My guts are churning to think about going there, and churning about the heartbreak of leaving.
I hate posting fresh blood.  But oh my aching spleen, oh my bile-flooded heart.
I’m going to go overeat, perchance to sleep, and pray that Friday follows Thursday.

People who hate me will still teach me.

Teachers don’t have to like you!  I seriously thought they did.  My positive relationships with teachers were a much-needed supplement to my single-working-parent family.  And kids in class who hated school didn’t seem to learn as much as those of us who loved it.  My brain assumed the relationship was the key factor.

(Digression:  the friends from intact nuclear families who would pity me or patronize me, or admit to thanking their stars for being so lucky as to have two parents, a permanent house, no couch surfing, etc., are generally correct:  these protective factors tend to improve school performance, general health, and professional attainment.  That said, many of them experienced horrible things that were as rotten, more or less, as my childhood burdens, but without acquiring the resilience that is learned from getting the hell out of marriage.  It shouldn’t be shocking to hear that changing your situation and learning how to survive independently can be better for some kids than being locked in an inescapable situation due to parents who can’t imagine Who Gets The House and What Will Our Families Think.  Walking away from some things is a good ability to have, as is learning the confidence to leave an abusive spouse, on and on.  But there are a lot of people who believe — actually outright state — that it’s better for their children to be in a home with abuse and addiction and horrible behavior simply so they can live in a nice neighborhood and a large house.  They are not kidding.  But they are wrong.  Guess what?  You can be afraid of change, and you can be enamored of your tax advantages, and you can wonder and worry and fret about how it would go if you left.  It’s scary and it’s hard.  But children who witness abuse tolerate it and perpetrate it — it’s normal to them.  You can tell them it’s wrong, and they can tell you they’ll never allow it to be part of their lives, but you have modeled it and they will repeat it.  If you think that living in a nice house with an abusive relationship is better for your children than living in an apartment with no abuse, you need to keep working on that logic problem for at least one more minute.)

So: teachers were my friends.  No matter where we moved, teachers were impressed.  A lot of them seemed to feast on having one kid in the room who wanted to learn and was a high performer.  Pleasing them earned me praise and confidence.  My Single Working Mom (SWM) would come home from work and hang out with me, making up extra homework and cracking the textbooks from her year of college to keep challenging me and make learning fun.  For me, learning means teacher praise, fascinating subjects, Mom time, the adventure of expanding mental horizons.  Wonder and more wonder.  And supportive personal connections, that pearl of great price.

It took me a long time to realize that learning basically stops in the grown up world, and most of the things I have a chance to learn through my daily occupation are forms and formalities, policies and procedures.  It’s still learning.  But a lot of the people who are in a position to teach me are assholes.  I’ve been avoiding them, because assholes are not my favorite thing, and because I’ve always assumed that holy bond between teacher and student, guru and chela, would have to exist for the simpatico chemical reaction of teaching to occur.

Turns out not.  Paying respectful attention to assholes and asking them to share knowledge does not make them likeable and it does not make them like you.  But people who know stuff seem incapable of withholding it if approached politely.  There might be some habitual behaviors and secondary gain motives (ego boosting, etc.,) but people who have knowledge seem to want to share it if they can, and if they are asked nicely.  This might save humanity.  But only if we who want this knowledge can put up with the sometimes petty personalities of the wise.  It would be stupid not to, right?

Pinterest Commenters: Yeesh

The most repinned post on any of my Pinterest boards is an infographic on the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It’s also the one with the most comment-conversations by far.  Normally I don’t engage in comment battles — if I have something I absolutely must contribute, I usually shut off notifications of further comments — but when it’s my post (my board, my thought, my backyard) I will keep ploughing ahead.  I also reserve the right to have the last word, under the Get Your Own Damned Blog ruling of 2002 (cf. Twisty Faster).

A summary of interactions:

1.  “Other people have the right not to want gay marriage”:  yes, and they are free to express that opinion.  My adding that it should include the explicit right never to marry seemed to heal the breach.  Verdict:  fist bumps.

2.  Random frothing from a lady who conflated the declaration with “not working for what you get” and determining that it’s “BS” because the US Constitution only guarantees the PURSUIT of happiness, not free abortions, and PS you probly are for gun control: explaining the difference between the US and the UN, that the US Constitution doesn’t apply worldwide, that I am pro-gun, and that thinking a blob of cells should have more rights than the woman pumping them full of blood, etc., etc.  (When their rebuttals are limited to 500 characters, anti-choice folks don’t get to indulge their rant-over-facts technique to end conversations and pretend they won the argument.)  Verdict: random frother tires of presenting balloons for my pin; bails.

3.  Anti-PC snark stating that if you can’t be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., then there is no freedom of speech:  sorry, wrong number, since you have the freedom to be as bigoted as you want, but free speech doesn’t imply freedom from repercussion.  Everyone is free to have an opinion; whining because your opinion is disgusting doesn’t take away your right to speak it.  Verdict:  sincere offer to explain why it is logical to be intolerant of intolerance and still be tolerant was met with silence.  (I hope she works out the math and comes back; I was looking forward to that.)

4.  Crypto-pseudo-Libertarian coyly asserting that it can’t be a “right” if it places a burden upon others: delicious fun spanking the monkey ass of someone who cherishes license more than liberty and thinks public health is an unnecessary luxury that poor folks don’t deserve.  No inherent rights?  I agree!  It’s shorthand for the idea that no one person or group inherently deserves less respect or fair treatment than any other individual or group.  No burden upon others?  Easy!  The word “burden” can mean any responsibility, no matter how slight, as well as mean a problematic responsibility that exhausts resources.  A main purpose of society is to do useful things the individual can’t; putting a slight burden on everyone for a significantly useful common purpose (roads, schools, and — whisper it — public health) is not the oppressive type of burden but an obligation that does good for all and harm to none — like a “Good Sam” road rule.  Verdict:   NOT TODAY, SATAN!

5.  Fastidiously polite Saudi man thinks that democracy isn’t All That, that Westerners have a distorted notion of royalty, that a king who owns a country should not have to bend to the will of the people any more than a shop owner should consult the factory schlubs on how to run his business; and that people who have different ways should just be left alone because “they are happy the way they are”.  Agreed that democracy has major problems and that the US has “No More Kings” printed on its DNA from its history with England (and secretly longs to indulge its shameful urge to adore royalty in filial piety).  That said, a nation is its people, unownable, and it is shameful and unjust to govern without consent of the governed.  PS:  “leave them alone, they are happy the way they are” has been used to justify non-interference with all manner of abuse, from domestic violence (“she’d leave if she didn’t like it; it’s not our business to interfere”) to slavery (“look at how happy they were back then, with all their meals and things provided”), so use that idea with care here in the West.  Verdict:  royal subject still thinks kings are awesome if they treat their people well yet does not mind that kings are not obliged to be awesome.

What next, seriously?  I did not expect one do-gooder infographic to inspire so much resistance.  How many Americans think individual freedoms are actually a horrible idea and highly suspect?  I get the Saudi guy, who is a paragon of intersectional privilege, but garden variety poor Americans?  To paraphrase Professor Kirke, what ARE they teaching in schools these days?

Venn Diagram: Sluts and Feminists and Feminist Sluts

Separate intro problem for contrast:  powerful women who think “feminist” is a dirty word. 

On one hand, we have the Susan Sarandon / Madonna contingent who like Wendy Wasserstein’s preference for the term “humanist” instead of “feminist”.  This term sounds more inclusive, is ungendered, and is congruent with my own feminism, which is against all oppression, not only the oppression of women.  While I respect their choice, it has the flavor of white privilege and echoes the problem of being “color blind” to race.  “I don’t see people as having color” = “I don’t have to acknowledge the problems faced by people of color”.  “Rather than fighting against women’s problems, I fight against humanity’s problems” seems to equal, “Women and girls face no special problems in this world,” — a laughable fiction.  The more empowering non-feminist feminist term might be Alice Walker’s identification as a womanist.

Weak tea, ladies.

On the other hand, we have conservatives such as Michele Bachmann and Michelle Gellar, who are happy to have privileges hard-won by self-identified feminists (college degrees, the right to vote, the right to equal opportunity employment, etc.,) but would never stand with the women who fought for their rights.  “OOH ICKY, heck no, I would never call myself a feminist!  It’s so pushy and aggressive and doesn’t acknowledge the importance of men”, usually in God’s Plan.  (These women are my sisters but lordy, they are trapped in their thinking.)  The “lite” version are people like Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry, who don’t seem to know anything about feminism.  Believing women can be strong and still wanting to play traditional gender roles in their personal relationships have zero-nil-nit-swabo-nada-nothing to do with feminism, but someone apparently told them they couldn’t be feminists and let their dates buy them dinner.

To quote Handy from “The Tick”: READ A BOOK!

(On that mythical third hand, the gripping hand, the stunted mental tentacle, we have people such as Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative party monster who worked hard to kill the Equal Rights Amendment — how unAmerican to want civil equality! — and is kept hidden in the GOP attic because she is two things the party hates in women:  smart and ugly.  Fox Republic likes women who are pretty and stupid.  While Mrs. Schlafly is a roaring hypocrite, being an educated divorcee who has had an abortion who fights to keep other women from having the opportunities she enjoyed, she is not stupid.  Evil, yes; stupid, no.)

Look at all the people who are not feminists!

Who DOES identify as feminist?  (And perhaps should not?)

Certain dudes.  I live in the Pacific Northwest, which is home to a lot of passive aggression hiding behind non-confrontation and masquerading as good manners.  There are a lot of guys here who seem sweet and friendly and positive and supportive and nurturing, but only because they have been socialized to appear that way.  In relationships, they are sneering, demanding, angry, resentful babies when faced with the most minimal life demands, but in public, they are sleek and smooth and good little boys.  Oh, these middle class folks and their love of appearances!  Part of this is calling themselves feminists. They might be the dudes of random hygiene and baby dreds, or they might be the neckties at Tektronix who smoke dope on the weekends.  Either way, when you scratch their feminism, you get “hey, I never said we were monogamous just because we’ve lived together for six years; you’re a feminist, you shouldn’t be trying to chain me down”, and a wife who also works full time but does almost all the chores, childcare, and shopping.  Her last name is hyphenated; his is not.

Certain women.  As tepid as the Katy Perrys and Kelly Clarksons, but just this side of the divide.  “Well, sure, I’m a feminist.  I mean, I guess.  I wouldn’t NOT be a feminist.  But I do shave my legs and wear makeup and stuff.  And I’m straight (not that there is anything wrong with NOT being straight).  And my husband, he’s a feminist too, at least he calls himself one.  But, yeah, my husband always drives and stuff.  He gets carsick if he’s not the driver, which I get, because that happens to me too.”  She’s married to the guy at Tektronix.  And she feels in control of her life because she chose to knuckle under.  Real strength lies in flexibility, right?  It’s the sort of flexibility that allows her to cleave unto her husband’s interests (the beer she does not like, the sports she never played, the hobby she tries hard to share) but not mind, not really, that he has never made an effort to see what she sees in the things that thrill her.  Her early married life involves convincing herself she’s not a doormat and that her husband’s boots aren’t that muddy, anyway.  Common life paths:  being traded in for a younger model when the paterfamilias hits man-o-pause; slowly growing a spine and holding her own (so long as she doesn’t leave Nice Village, because that would mean giving up her Nice House and moving to Divorcetown); and/or eroding into a conservative out of isolation from youth and fear of change.

(Aside:  aging so often leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with self, really a tunnel vision focusing on self, that people celebrate as “finally becoming independent” and “taking control of my life” and all kinds of other self-petting BS.  A lifetime of social skills are slowly replaced by selfishness and a demanding nature and an I’m-too-old-to-give-a-shit-you-can’t-make-me attitude.  It is possible to cultivate wisdom, patience, grace, and a generous heart; I’m not saying these folks aren’t out there.  But the voice of the zeitgeist for the next generations is one of a petty egomaniac.)

Yeah, but what about the sluts?  You promised us sluts!

And sluts you shall have, my pretties.  But first, let me say that the word “slut” is used here as a social type and should not be construed as an insult.  Mentally substitute “Bad Girl” or “Libertine” or whatever, so long as there is an implication of visibility, aggressive sexuality, and extroversion in non-mainstream ways.  This is not a meaningful identifier.  As a label, it’s about as value-descriptive as a sticker that says HI MY NAME IS:_____.

Since you don’t know me, let me add that I have nothing against wild styles, wild behavior, or any degree of promiscuity.  I know you can sleep with a passel of folks and still be as sacred in your person as the Virgin Mary, still be as sweet and good-hearted as Snow White.  Nor do I have anything against women who dress and comport themselves like two-peso whores, strictly because those whores can be wonderful people too, and clothes themselves do not possess, impart, or deny morality.   You can have a dirty mind and work your body like a rubber ball and still have a solid-gold character (as explained in the Song of Saint Rizzo, the Book of Grease, Act IV).

What is in your underwear, and what you do with it, does not make you a person of moral refinement OR moral depravity.  Period. This is part of my feminism: that virginity is a social construct, that most moral codes are keys to the commodification of women and girls, that the double standard for men works against both men and women, and that men are also deeply harmed by patriarcho-religious BS.  We’re all victims here.  That said:  the problems of men and women are not equal.  Men have more physical power and more socioeconomic power.  While males are more prone to stunted emotional expression and a twisted sense of entitlement, females are more prone to being victims of violence, loss of franchise, physical disfigurement, and other, harsher penalties.

One of those penalties is for sexual freedom.  The main argument for mutilating the genitals of girls at puberty, in the many countries where it occurs, is to deprive females of sexual pleasure.  Whether that pleasure is undeserved, or makes them rival men, or whatever, the ultimate problem is that it is a threat to the social dominance of men.  It keeps women “pure” (a purity that men don’t seem to need), whether that is to make them good mothers, to atone for the sin of Eve, or to keep them submissive to the proper authority of men and worthy of wifehood.  Consider issues of clothing modesty, social judgment, the blaming of rape victims by other women, and other typical problems in Western culture.  American government traditions were begun by Puritans in the northeast, and eventually our nation’s capitol was raised in this center.  Those values were adopted wholesale and passed down through law and culture.  And they stink.

Burlesque artists, dominatrices, sex workers, strippers, “artist’s models”, and feminism.

The goods at last!  Recently an article by Lizzie Crocker at The Daily Beast presented Karley Sciortino as a case and asked if she was the new face of feminism.  Karley Sciortino has a blog called “Slutever”, which involves sexually provocative activities and sly commentary; she is not my concern here.  My concern is the question: is she the new face of feminism?  The answer is an easy “no”, for me.  My comment on the post:

“Being free to behave as you wish is the result of feminism, not an act in support of it, in my opinion.  There are many types of feminism.  Mine has very little in common with hers — so little that it’s impossible to compare them.  But the word still has some meaning, and calling yourself a feminist when you encourage the worst problem women face doesn’t work.  I fully support her right to express herself and present herself as she wishes.  But is it a specifically feminist act to cater to the oppressor?  Not so much, no.

“It’s true that my wave of feminists tends to see sexually aggressive / open females as heading back to the pedestal/gutter binary we fought to destroy.  Her generation is free to behave in a hypersexual way, but honestly, women have always been free to do that because men were in power, and men enjoyed it.  Men still are and men still do and still keep women in the binary cage because of it.  It’s challenging to support behavior that feeds the beast, you know?”

I have had friends in all the categories of the section header, and most of them consider themselves feminists.  Dressing provocatively, twerking and twirling, selling your services — all that and more — do not prevent you from wanting or deserving social equality.  And I fully acknowledge that no feminist has to conform to my wave of feminism, which was (sometimes stupidly) preoccupied with gaining the respect of the oppressor.  (It’s not stupid when you are convincing those in power to share it; that’s being smart for the cause.) Part of that respect involved continuing to conform to a the Modern Puritan Establishment standard, for some people; burning bras, but wearing turtlenecks, even if what we wanted was to go barechested in the summer heat, as men do.  And for others, it meant taking advantage of new-won sexual freedom by engaging in more sex than we really wanted, or with people we didn’t really like, to exert our power to do so — it’s hard to say “no” when you’ve only just won the right to say “yes” — but we had yet to learn that we had the power to say “no”, too.  It was a hard time if you were not a libertine, but a good time if you were ready to fight for your rights.

You can march to the White House in glitter paint and pasties, but if you are not marching, you are not the face of feminism.  The new generation does not have a goddamned clue what it was like to have to wear skirts to work, get sent home for not wearing a slip or pantyhose, lose custody of children for dating after a divorce, be refused the right to divorce without proof of infidelity, or have no legal recourse after blatant sexual harassment on the job, and a thousand other atrocities.  That’s part of what allows them to think feminism is a dirty word.  But while feminism has earned women the freedom to dress as they will and not bow to the desire to earn the pseudo-respect of Decent People™, it’s not a feminist act to conform to the expectations mainstream society has for Sluts while asking for nothing better.

Most of the body workers I know either live solely in society’s gutter or they maintain rigorous separation of identities so that they don’t lose their day jobs.  Living in the closet is not a feminist act.  But feminism one day might get you out of the closet.  Stripping, strutting, and selling it are fine.  But they aren’t feminist acts.  If you’d like to merge your worlds, work for social justice.  Take a stand and come out of the slut closet.  But do not assume that showing the world your cooch is a blow for justice.  It might make you feel in control of your body, and that is a wonderful thing.  But is it knocking down stereotypes, opening doors to insight, helping mainstream society learn (or demanding that they acknowledge) that women have value beyond what they keep in their panties?  No.  It is not.