Friday, May 1, 2015

I'm not just certifiable, now I'm certified!

***trigger warning: childhood sexual abuse, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempt***

I was five years old, running, screaming through the empty house, calling out for Mommy, wondering where she was, what had happened, if my brother was right and they had come to take her away, back to the hospital, so she could rest and recuperate, another nervous breakdown, all my fault because I told her, the secret my brother told me not to tell, about him and his friend and and and...their disgusting boy parts touching my body in ways that made me shout no and get shushed and warned again that we don't want to upset Mommy. I flung myself into the closet and cried myself to sleep until Mommy got home and found me and hugged me and kissed me and showed me she wasn't in the hospital and that she was there with me and not gone, that she had just left me alone for a minute while I was asleep, while she ran my brother to school, so she wouldn't have to disturb me. When I lay there in Mommy's arms, listening to her trying to find ways to comfort me, I never would have dreamed some day I would be someone people like me could turn to for help with their mental illness.

I was in third grade. Standing on the scale in front of a room full of grownup women I didn't know, so embarrassed, so ashamed, so disappointed in myself. I would listen to everything they told me, follow all the rules, and I would lose weight and I would make Mom and Dad proud of me. As I sat there planning my escape from Weight Watchers, I never would have dreamed some day I would be someone people like me could turn to for help with their mental illness.

I was eleven. Everybody was mad at me. Everybody kept yelling at me, or worse--crying--and telling me if I didn't start eating again I could die. As I sat there in my first therapist's office, the one who I'd been referred to after the doctor diagnosed me with anorexia after I had passed out in school, as I sat there in her office, shrugging my shoulders, trying to stop shivering, I never would have dreamed some day I would be someone people like me could turn to for help with their mental illness.

I was a teenager, locked inside our bathroom, sobbing, calling my mom at work to see if she could come home and break up a fight between my dad and me. When I sat there on the bathroom floor, staring at the knife in my hand, wondering if I had the guts to use it on him, I never would have dreamed some day I would be someone people like me could turn to for help with their mental illness.

I was a teenager, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, staring into the cabinet underneath the sink, thinking that I could do it, I could end the pain right then and there, by swallowing the contents of that can of Drano. Bye, bye, Becky. This shit works on stubborn clogs. This shit will work on you. When I sat there sobbing, listening to my inner self-hatred tell me it was the only way out, I never would have dreamed some day I would be someone people like me could turn to for help with their mental illness.

I was in my early-twenties. After I swallowed a bottle of my prescription Paxil, my girlfriend found me and called 911. On the ambulance ride to the ER. Cold and metal. And then inside the ER. I sat up high, on a bed, on white sheets, in a fog, answering the nurse's questions in between throwing up in a bucket she was holding in front of me after she had me swallow some nasty charcoal crap, listening to her telling me it was going to be OK, that I probably just wigged out because I was on my period and it was a full moon. I wanted to complain that she was pathologizing my femininity, that I had deep pain that was real, that was serious. But instead, while I sat there silent, dumbfound, wondering how the hell I could get out of there, I never would have dreamed some day I would be someone people like me could turn to for help with their mental illness.

But I am. After over four-decades, I have become that person. I am someone people like me can turn to for help with their mental illness. Seriously. I took a class.

Well, that and spent my adulthood getting my shit together through a mixture of introspection, blogging, medication, meditation, exercise, body respect, and lots and lots of help from my husband, my friends and family and numerous mental health professionals.

But that's a long story, much longer than I have time to share now, so instead, let's focus on the class. 

In the class I learned that 90% of all youths who experience a mental health crisis fully recover. No longer are people with certifiable mental illnesses destined to spend their lives locked up in the loony bin. Many of us grow up to lead rich, fulfilling lives. Some of us get to the point where we're able to help others. The more we share our stories of mental illness, the more we detach the stigma associated with mental illness, the more we understand that mental illness is a common, treatable health issue similar to diabetes or other physical diseases, the more we can help others who might otherwise try to suffer though it alone.

So, I, Becky Carleton, who has in her lifetime been diagnosed by various doctors over the years with a wide array of mental illnesses ranging from anorexia to PTSD, am hereby not just certifiable, but certified to help our youth in crisis find the help they need. 

my certificate from Youth Mental Health First Aid
From the site:
"Youth Mental Health First Aid is designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, health and human services workers, and other caring citizens how to help an adolescent (age 12-18) who is experiencing a mental health or addictions challenge or is in crisis. Youth Mental Health First Aid is primarily designed for adults who regularly interact with young people. The course introduces common mental health challenges for youth, reviews typical adolescent development, and teaches a 5-step action plan for how to help young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations. Topics covered include anxiety, depression, substance use, disorders in which psychosis may occur, disruptive behavior disorders (including AD/HD), and eating disorders."
I found out about this program from a flier sent home from my daughter's school. If you're interested in the program, you can find a course here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

As American as healthy apple pie

Twenty years ago, my maternal grandmother and I got into a fight over apple pie. It was during a game of "Scattergories," at my mom's house. Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or someone's birthday. I forget. It was shortly after my mom had divorced my dad. She was living in a tiny one-bedroom house and we'd all gathered in her living room for food and drinks and family fun. And competition.

The letter was "A" and the category was "health foods." Some joker--I can't remember who, let's just blame my brother Pat since he's dead now and can't defend himself--wrote down "apple pie." I said, "no way." My grandmother said, "yes way," and that was that. She insisted that because apple pie is full of apples, it should be considered a fruit, and therefore healthy. I insisted that because it's full of sugar, it should be considered a dessert, and therefore, unhealthy.

No one backed either of us up. Not Mom. Not Pat. Not one of our other siblings, our grandmother's grandchildren. No one gave either of us any kindling for that fire. They just sat there and wisely stuffed their faces with pie, guzzled their beers, told their jokes. I can't blame them. I wouldn't have wanted to argue with either of us, either. I am a know-it-all librarian, which is bad enough, but I'm also a former anorexic who used to memorize calorie counting books for fun. You don't want to argue nutrition with me. Our grandmother was no health expert, but as the self-appointed Ruler of the family, she allowed no dissent. She was the boss and everyone knew it. Mom had managed to slip out from underneath my dad's grip after the divorce, but she never was able to shrug off her own mother. 

It was futile to try to assert yourself around my grandmother. The best strategy, the one that kept your head dry and out of the toilet, was to ignore her domineering streak and ride it out until she died, which she did eight years ago, at the ripe old age of 94. Must have been all those healthy apple pies she ate over the years. 

The strategy that got your head wet and shoved into the toilet, where you could hear the great whirring sound of the flush in your ears combined with our grandmother's maniacal cackle, was to challenge her authority. I'd never had the nerve, so I never had my head flushed in the toilet by our grandmother when I was young. But I'd heard the stories of it happening to my other siblings and cousins enough that I knew to keep my mouth shut around her, unless I wanted a mouthful of toilet water.

So I kept my mouth shut until she tried to say apple pie is a health food. That's when I chose to speak up. You can break me, but you cannot break my obsession with nutrition.

I was in my twenties. I was fat and had been ever since I'd recovered from anorexia, just as I had been before I was anorexic, from the time I was four until third grade when my parents sent me to Weight Watchers, which triggered my struggle with anorexia. I was fat, but I wasn't slow. I knew I could outrun my grandmother. She was fat, too, but also old and unfit. I, on the other hand, was young and fit. I walked and worked out regularly while my grandmother sat on the couch, running her mouth off in the lobby of the senior center where she lived. I was certain my head would stay dry. 

And it did. Our fight over apple pie was short and sweet. Not because I had to show off my athletic skills against an elderly woman. I just decided it wasn't worth arguing about. Once I saw that my grandmother was not going to rise from her chair and drag me into the bathroom by my hair, I dropped it.

"Whatever," I said, rolling my eyes. "Think what you will, but I know apple pie's not on my diet."

I let Pat or whoever it was score a point in the game. I didn't care about the game. But I knew I was right. Apple pie is no health food.

At least I thought I was right at the time. Now I don't know. Maybe adding a little apple pie to our diet isn't the worst thing we can do to our bodies. The way health trends change in our culture, the way doctors say one decade to do this, and the next decade to do that. They say fill up on rice cakes and sugar-free, fat-free, low-cal packaged food! And then the next decade they say, Oh shit, no, wait a minute. Your body needs some fat. OK, now go fill up on avocados and nuts and salmon, but no eggs or whole milk. Stay away from those unhealthy foods or we'll have to start you on medicine to control your cholesterol! Fill up on whole grains and nuts! And then, just when you've discovered the joys of almond milk and granola, you start to read news articles that warn about eminent death if your diet is too high on the glycemic index from putting sugar-sweetened almond milk in your--oh, shit!--high carb granola.

As a former anorexic who has spent far too many years obsessing over my body and my health and trying to "eat right" and "be healthy" and "follow my doctor's advice," all I know is this: I feel my best when I listen to myself. When I tune out all the so-called experts, with their conflicting research and unethical diet industry ties. When I pay attention to my body, when I notice that I feel alert and energetic when I eat a big salad for lunch, but I feel sleepy and under a mental fog if I choose Indian buffet, or irritable and confused if I skip lunch altogether, when I treat my body with the respect it deserves, when I listen to it and trust it, I feel healthy.

When I don't plan my days around what I'm going to eat, or what I'm going to avoid eating, I feel healthy. When I have time to think about ways I can make this world a better place instead of spending a ridiculous amount of brain power on worrying about my weight and trying to ignore what I want to eat and trying to muster the enthusiasm for eating what I should eat, I feel healthy. 

It's taken me over four decades to get to this point in my life, but I feel like I'm finally my own health expert. I'm the boss of my own body.

So when my husband and I watched this video the other night, I took it all with a grain of salt. Sea salt. Not Morton's. Not No-Salt.

Right from the start, I could tell that the authors of this video are mixed up. They claim with their title "Top 10 Unhealthy Health Foods" that this list is about foods that are unhealthy, but then, as they say in the intro, it's really not about heath, but weight-loss:
Here are a few food options you might want to avoid when you’re trying to lose a few pounds. Join http://watchmojo.com as we count down our picks for the Top 10 Unhealthy Health Foods.
Their assumption that weight-loss and health go hand-in-hand is as outdated as this ad for Tab from 1979. 

Tab advertisement, 1979
image source

Remember Tab? It's that shit I was advised to drink instead of milk when I was sent to Weight Watchers in third grade. You know, the time in our children's lives when we want them to build strong bones. Ahh, the Seventies.

I quit my dieting for good a few years ago when I read a book called Health at Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon. I've written extensively over the years on this blog about my discovery of the Health at Every Size book and movement, and how much it's changed my life for good. But don't take my word for it. Here's an excellent summary of what it means to advocate for Health at Every Size:

HAES stands for "Health At Every Size". It is an approach to promoting health that first and foremost rests on the premise that everyone deserves respect. Whether we are thin, unwell, fat, healthy, fit, drink pop, eat burgers or wheat grass - whatever. A HAES approach recognizes that the single most effective way we can work to improve population health is to build a fairer world. Also, there’s more to health than diet and exercise: that size stigma, racism, poverty and so on are health hazards.
 
Many people first come across HAES as an alternative to dieting. And what an alternative! Rather than pursuing weight change, HAES advocates help people focus on health-gain and body respect. There are huge benefits for quality of life, sense of wellbeing and physiological outcomes that come from making peace with your body, not least having a healthy relationship with food and enjoying being active. 
HAES isn’t suggesting that everyone of every size is always healthy - a popular misconception. Instead, it focuses on helping anyone interested in being as healthy as they can be in the body they have right now. Hand in hand with this it challenges size stigma to advance equality. 
Weight change may or not occur when someone shifts to a HAES approach, who knows? HAES advocates aren’t anti- weight loss as such, we’re anti- the pursuit of weight loss. This is because health improvements can occur independently of weight change, and the weight-centred intervention is an unscientific and harmful endeavour that increases size stigma.
As more research piles up, the idea is catching on. Here's a great piece in a recent issue of The Guardian which sums it up nicely:
Of course, correlation is not causation, and there is still evidence to the contrary. But the fact that there is now statistically significant evidence to show that “overweight” and “mildly obese” people live longest, tells us that it’s at least something to consider when we think about fat bodies. 
It is hard to say whether this research will lead to any meaningful change in how we think about bodies and weight loss. There is such an emotional, cultural and financial investment in dieting and the diet industry that it seems we will never entirely shake it off. Thin privilege is rampant, and people truly believe that “working hard” to lose weight gives them the moral high ground. Apparently many people believe there’s something virtuous in consuming low-calorie food and going to the gym, and refuse to recognise that that’s a culturally constructed myth that props up the diet industry, patriarchy and oppressive beauty standards. It will take a long time to accept that it could be beneficial to your health to be fatter, purely because so many people are so invested in the belief that it’s not. 
Let me say that one more time. "A culturally constructed myth that props up the diet industry, patriarchy and oppressive beauty standards." You can certainly say that about body weight. You can also say that about body age. Just as our culture is obsessed with convincing women that we're too fat so we'll buy all their weight-loss crap, it's also obsessed with teaching us we're too old so we'll buy all their anti-aging crap.

What our cultural beauty myths tell us--you must be small, you must be young--let's just come out and be honest. What our culture means when it tells us we must be small and young is we must be vulnerable.

Stop it. Just stop. Women today, we must stop listening to so-called experts. We must start listening to ourselves. We must insist on being our own experts.

It's hard to overcome when we're bombarded and brainwashed by cultural norms from birth. But we can escape it if we're willing to pay attention and think critically. When we're willing to look back on our past and see how shitty it was, acknowledge the shit, and move on.

While searching Google Images for that Tab ad from my early childhood, I ran across these two ads for Love's Baby Soft perfume. I hadn't thought about Love's Baby Soft in decades. I still remember adding it to my Christmas list in first grade. I was thrilled when I discovered Santa had stuffed my stocking with it on Christmas morning.

Now that I think back on it, I just want to barf. Seventies, why you gotta be so sleazy?


 video source

Image and quote via Cracked:
"It really is hard to work pedophilia into your ad campaign gracefully. In the 70s, this Love's Baby Soft ad, with a dolled-up, pouty-lipped child and the slogan 'because innocence is sexier than you think' appeared in an issue of Tiger Beat magazine.
"And really, what better place to convince both young girls and sexual predators that this product can turn a preteen into a sexual dynamo? We can't figure out whether this ad means the 70s were a much more innocent time (when, what, nobody had heard of pedophiles?) or a much, much sleazier time. From our brief research into the 70s, we're going to go with the latter."
Ahh, The Seventies. As American as healthy apple pie.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Mom wins the internet: pot luck talk

"Pot luck talk is like a witty conference call where all is welcome to vent. Or is it all are? I think it's like bunch is, but bunches are. Was anyone awake during Grammer class diagrams of 8 parts of speech? I just remember dangling participles and try not to dangle mine." -- Mom Wins the Internet, on why it's fun to converse on Facebook feeds


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Rock Star Behind the Scenes

When I was eighth grade I had a plan. I'd bleach my bangs blonde, slap on some black eyeliner, and run away to England where I would meet the members of Duran Duran, stun them with my charm and wit, and accept their offer to be the new backup singer for the band. No problem that I had no talent for singing. I had really good hair.

By ninth grade I was more into The Smiths, The Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. I was beginning to feel a little embarrassed by my love of Duran Duran. Morrissey, Robert Smith, and Siouxsie Sioux had higher standards than The Fab Five, so I couldn't see them allowing me to join their bands. Instead, I'd win them over with my writing. I'd write poetry and prose that would knock them off their toes, and they'd embrace me with open arms.

Unfortunately, when I was in ninth grade, I wrote a lot a sentences like that last one, so I was never able to lure my musical heroes with my literary ways.

By tenth grade I signed up for a year-long drama class. I was certain I wouldn't make it through the year. I'd try out for the first play, snag the lead role, wow the audience on opening night, and graciously accept an offer from the talent scout in the crowd. "Sure, you can be my agent. Do you want me to sign the contract with my real name, Rebecca Sue Burton, or my stage name, Rebekah Sioux?"

Unfortunately I practiced my Academy Award acceptance speech in the bathroom mirror at home more than I practiced my lines. My name was not on the list of call backs after tryouts. Not my real name. Not Rebekah Sioux.

My drama teacher suggested I work behind the scenes, helping to build the set, work the lights, or run the sound system. I was appalled. Who did she think I am?  Behind the scenes? Whatever. If she couldn't see my star qualities, I wanted to be no part of her drama crew.

I gave up my dream of becoming a great actor, four years after I'd contracted the drama bug from my sixth grade teacher who told me my performance as The Nurse in our school production of "Romeo and Juliet" bordered on genius and wrote "to my thespian" on my report card. I still remember the terror I felt when I first read her comment. "Her thespian?" I thought. "How does she know about my secret attraction to girls?! What am I going to tell my mom?" I was so relieved when Mom looked at my report card and laughed. "Becky, 'thespian' means actor, not gay."

My tenth grade drama teacher was much less enthusiastic about my talents. Dude, who am I kidding? I wasn't acting for the pure joy of it. I was acting for the attention, the recognition, the praise it got me. Once nobody saw the sun shining out of my behind, I gave up and turned to writing.

My husband Will sang in a musical at his high school. He was one of the few guys with the guts to sing and dance. He did it for the chicks. Same reason he took up guitar playing and song writing. For the chicks.

Once Will and I got married, we tucked away our peacocky feathers, saving them for each other. While we're over our drama bug, our eight-year-old daughter, Kate, is starting to catch it. She joined the choir at church last year. This year, in third grade, she tried out for the musical and got a role as a chorister. She loves going to practice and regularly bursts into song and dance in the middle of our living room floor. She signs songs from the musical at stop lights in the back seat of the car. She sings so much, I join in, having never attended a practice but learning the songs just from hearing Kate sing them all the time.

"You know what I love about singing on stage?" Kate told me the other day.

"What?"

"I love when the lights come on and they're shining so bright in my face. I can't see the audience, so I can just stand there and pretend to be someone else," Kate said.

I'm glad she's having fun and that she's finding her voice. I hope her confidence doesn't begin to wane during her teen years as I've seen happen in too many girls. Myself included. I hope she retains her love of performing even if she doesn't always make call backs. I hope she doesn't give up because she doesn't always get the starring role.

All the parents of kids in the musical have been asked to help in some way with the set design and stage production. I am helpless in both areas. Back when I didn't make call backs, I booked it. I got out of that drama hall and turned to the library, where I made myself a career. I've worked at the library for twenty-two years. I love it, not just because I'm good at it. I love it because I know it's important. And even if I'm not the one in the spotlight, I might help someone else shine their brightest. I get to help kids work on reports for school. I get to encourage teens to read poetry from the greatest, most gifted outcasts the world's ever known. I get to recommend a nice, relaxing story for new parents with caretaker burnout to enjoy after they tuck their kids in at night after a long day. I don't stand on a stage and tell people stories. I stand on the floor and point them in the direction of a good story. That's my role.

So I'm a librarian, not a stage hand. However, as Kate's parent, I didn't feel right just shrugging it off and saying, "I don't know how to build a stage set for a musical." That's the thing about kids. We think we'll be our children's best teachers, and in many ways we are, but they end up teaching us so much more than we ever thought possible. I've learned how to sing goofy songs and read ridiculous stories out loud. I've learned how to teach Sunday school. I've learned how to make crafts using safety scissors and glue sticks. I've learned how to coach girls' basketball. All because of my daughter. All because I want to give my daughter as many enriching life experiences as I can.

And, because it's my job to show her that it's OK to try things even if you're not very good at them.

So I showed up at church in the multi-purpose room, ready to build some rocks. Actually, just by looking at me you never would have guessed that's what I was there to do. I'd just stepped out of the shower and into my car. My hair was still wet and hanging down all around me. I'd forgotten my hair tie at home. I was wearing a dress and sandals, my basic uniform whether I'm at work or at church or at the grocery store. I'm not really a jeans person. I like dresses for the same reason I like robes. Nothing to bunch up at the waist when you move about your day. I would totally wear a mumu if they were more socially acceptable. Instead, I settle for nice, comfy Lands' End dresses.

But I wasn't thinking when I threw on one of my Lands' End dresses and headed to church to help build part of the set. When I saw the woman I was supposed to help work on this project--building a Yahweh altar, whatever that is--and I saw that she very smartly wore a sweatshirt, jeans, and tennis shoes, all worn and splattered with previous project's paint, I realized how unprepared I really was for my job.

It never stopped me before. I am the queen of unpreparedness. Dead Boy Scouts are more prepared for life than I am, but at least I show up.

And you know what? I built some freakin' rocks, like a rock star. If, by rock star you mean a middle-aged mom using a Dollar Store serrated knife to saw through some blocks of donated Styrofoam. It was awkward and I made a mess, and most of the time it felt like I had no clue what I was doing, but after an hour and a half, I had successfully turned blocks of Styrofoam into rock-like objects that could pass for a Yahweh altar, whatever that is.

"Wow, Mom, those rocks look great!" Kate said in the same voice she uses when she compliments the coloring skills of the four-year-olds in my Sunday School class.

"Thanks, Punk. Be sure to tell Grandma Bev what you saw me do today. She'd be proud of me," I said, of course. Always looking for validation.

My mom is an artist who only feels comfortable with a paintbrush or a scroll saw in her hand. My whole life I've never seen her go a day with making something. My father, on the other hand, cannot hammer a nail into a wall without destroying something, usually his pride. He was not the builder, the artist, the fix-it handyman of the family. He went to work at the office every day. He paid the bills. He paid for the paintbrushes and scroll saws and never minded the messy house that comes with living with an artist. That's how he supported the arts. But he never offered his hand at building anything.

Mom tried to get me to follow in her artistic footsteps, but I never had the patience. I loved to draw when I was a kid, but once I discovered that I could tell stories with words instead of pictures, that became my thing. Well, after a couple of years of deluding myself into thinking I could act and sing.

"Yes, those look great," the other woman working on the Yahweh altar project said.

"Aww, shucks," I said, feigning modesty, when in fact I wanted to say, "Yes, yes! Keep the praise coming!" I couldn't say that though. No matter how much of a show-off I am. I knew that this project wasn't about me. It wasn't about showing off my talents. It wasn't about proving I could do something I'm not very good at.

I knew this because of the other woman working on the Yahweh altar project. When we first began sawing through the blocks of Styrofoam, I asked her if this was the first year she had worked on the stage production for the youth musical at church.

"No. I've been doing this for a few years now," she said.

I asked about her background, how she got roped into being in charge of building sets and running lights and sound and doing all the "behind the scenes" work. She explained that she volunteers each year to do this work because she loves it.

"I have a theater background," she began to explain.

"Oh, did you act in high school, or college or something?" I asked.

"Not too much. I'm an artist, so what I really love is building the sets. In college, I majored in graphic design and minored in theater. I love the theater, but acting wasn't really my thing. I love working behind the scenes." She smiled so sweetly, so shyly. I was awestruck.

"Wow, that's great," I said. "Now I feel like a jerk."

"Why?"

"Because I was never that person. In high school I tried out once and when I didn't get on the list of call backs, I dropped out. I should have tried to work behind the scenes. Support the team, you know. But I was too self-centered and arrogant. I wanted to be the star. Instead, I slunk away, feeling rejected."

Kate put her hand on my back and said, "That's OK, Mom. Not everyone is good at the same things."

The other woman and I looked at each other like, "Who is this kid?" and smiled.

Later, in the car on the ride home, I said to Kate, "Well, that was surprisingly fun."

"Yeah, Mom. When you told me you were going to help build rocks for the Yahweh altar, I had no idea how you were going to do that!"

"Thanks a lot."

"No, what I mean is, you know, you don't really like to build stuff. You don't even play 'Minecraft'! I never really thought of you as a builder. You're a writer and a storyteller. That's what you're good at. But you know what else you're good at, Mom?"

"What?" I asked. My heart was pounding in anticipation of what this eight-year-old child was going to say about me much more than I care to admit.

"You're good at trying things you're not good at," Kate said.

"Thanks, Punk. I haven't always been good at that, but I'm trying."

"Well, that's all you have to do, Mom, is try."

"And not be afraid of looking like a dork," I added.

"Yeah, well, you should be used to that by now!"

At least I know if Kate loses interest in singing and acting, she can always get a job as a comedian.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Your soul's got a letter from Anne Lamott

Grand Star-forming Region, taken by Hubble

I don't believe in angels, really. I believe in people. Living and dead. Religious and irreligious. Spiritual and skeptical. People who say things that make me shake my head and say, "Yes, that is exactly what I think, only I wasn't aware of it until this very moment." People whose insight and tenacity and courage allow them to look deeply within themselves and around the universe and share with us what they see. Those are the people who make me gasp in wonderment.

How can she know exactly how I feel? It's as if she's inside my head, jotting down notes from the crooks of my mind.

I believe in people who are charged up, their life energy powered up and ready to go. They can afford to be brave because they possess the valuable knowledge that they are not alone. They understand that life is just encapsulated energy and that our purpose on this earth is to love one another.

I believe in people like Emily Saliers, author and lead singer of the amazing Indigo Girls' song "Virginia Woolf" that celebrates our interconnectedness:


Some will strut and some will fret
See this an hour on the stage
Others will not but they'll sweat
In their hopelessness in their rage
We're all the same men of anger
And the women of the page
They published your diary
And that's how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own
And a mind without end
And here's a young girl
On a kind of a telephone line through time
And the voice at the other end
Comes like a long lost friend
So I know I'm alright
Life will come and life will go
Still I feel it's alright
'Cause I just got a letter to my soul
And when my whole life is on the tip of my tongue
Empty pages for the no longer young
The apathy of time laughs in my face
You say "Each life has it's place"
The hatches were battened
The thunder clouds rolled and the critics stormed
The battle surrounded the white flag of your youth
If you need to know that you weathered the storm
Of cruel mortality
A hundred years later I'm sittin' here living proof
So you know you're alright
(Life will come and go)
Life will come and life will go
Still you'll feel it's alright
(Someone gets your soul)
Someone'll get a letter to your soul
When your whole life is on the tip of your tongue
Empty pages for the no longer young
The apathy of time laughed in your face
Did you hear me say "Each life has its place"?
The place where you hold me
Is dark in a pocket of truth
The moon had swallowed the sun
And the light of the earth
And so it was for you
When the river eclipsed your life
And sent your soul like a message
In a bottle to me
And it was my rebirth
So we know we're alright
Though life will come, life will go
Still you'll feel it's alright
(Someone gets your soul)
Someone'll will get a letter to your soul
An' when you know you're alright
And you feel you're alright
(Empty pages for the no longer young)
You'll say dry our eyes
(You said)
And you feelin' dry your eyes
(Each life has it's place)
You know it's all right
(It'll be alright)
And it's all right
I  believe in people like Anne Lamott. She sent a letter to my soul when I read what she wrote today. I have a feeling your soul's got a letter from her, too.

All truth is a paradox. Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It has been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive. It is so hard and weird that we wonder if we are being punked. And it filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.

Writing: shitty first drafts. Butt in chair. Just do it. You own everything that happened to you. You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart--your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it's why you were born.

Publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and sometimes nearly-evil men I have known were all writers who'd had bestsellers. Yet, it is also a miracle to get your work published (see #1.). Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, will fill the Swiss cheesey holes. It won't, it can't. But writing can. So can singing.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday Meat

Kate, first thing this morning: Mom, did you know that you're not supposed to eat meat today because it's Good Friday?

Me: Oh yeah? Who told you that?

Kate: Ariana (a girl in Kate's class at a secular school).

Me: Huh. Did she say why you're not supposed to eat meat?

Kate: Because it's Good Friday.

Me: Yeah, but I mean, why "no meat". Why not "no candy" or something else?

Kate: I don't know. She just said you're not supposed to eat meat on Good Friday.

Me: Maybe Ariana's Catholic? Grandma Bev​ is Catholic, and she told me that many Catholics don't eat meat on holy days like Good Friday. Some Catholics don't eat meat on any Friday. Lots of Hindus and Buddhists don't eat meat at all. And then some Jewish people and Muslim people don't eat things like shellfish. There's lot of rules for what you can and can't eat in different religions.

Kate: Well, you're not supposed to eat meat on Good Friday.

Me: Eh, yes and no. It's really your choice, Hon. We're Presbyterians, and Presbyterians don't have as many rules. So I wouldn't worry about it.

Later, after school:

Me: So, did you eat meat at lunch?

Kate: No, I had macaroni and cheese.

Me: Oh yeah? How come? Just 'cause it looked good?

Kate: No, because it's Good Friday.

Me: Ah, I see. But I thought because we're Presbyterians we don't have to follow that rule?

Kate: Yeah, well. I decided to not eat meat today. Just in case.

Me: Just in case what? Do you think God would be mad if you ate meat today?

Kate: No.

Me: So what would happen if you ate meat on Good Friday?

Kate: I might have a bad day.

Me: So not eating meat on Good Friday's kinda like having a good luck charm? Maybe a lucky rabbit's foot? I hope it's not the Easter Bunny!

Kate, shaking her head: Mom, I'm gonna go watch "Uncle Grandpa" now.

I wonder if Kate would have decided to not eat meat today "just in case" if the vegetarian option at school was just vegetables and not one of her favorite dishes, macaroni and cheese?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The best things in life are free

"If you were a best-selling author, what would you do with all your income?" Kate asked.

Income?

What, has she been hanging out with my accountant father? Where'd she learn that word?

Our eight-year-old is studying financial planning in third grade. They're working on a unit in social studies. They list out examples of the differences between "needs" and "wants".

Food is a need. Minecraft is a want.
Shelter is a need. A toy is a want.

"A toy is a want?" I argued. "I don't think a toy is a want. A toy is a need. Toys help children's brains develop and teach creativity and life skills."

"Mom. A toy is a want. You won't die if you don't have a toy." My eight-year-old said this. What is wrong with kids today?

"Well, your soul dies," I said.

I don't know whose idea it was to teach budgeting to children, but I see the point. My credit-card statements prove I paid no attention to my parents, who BOTH have accounting certificates and spent decades working in offices, keeping track of companies' financials. If kids don't learn how to spend their money wisely at home, it makes sense to round them all up and give them tips that could prevent future bankruptcies and spousal arguments. It might be nice to live in a community where everyone isn't constantly stressed out and grumpy, wondering how they're gonna pay their bills.

It's not all rainbows and unicorns, though. The teacher also incorporates fractions into their financial planning assignments, so it's a win-win in efficiency. Kate brings home worksheets that have columns and pie charts and diagrams explaining how a student could choose to spend their money. Kate wrote:

I'd use 1/4 of my income to pay for food.
I'd use 1/4 of my income to pay for my house.
I'd use 1/4 of my income to pay for my games and toys and fun stuff.
I'd give 1/4 of my income to charity.

"Wow, 1/4 of your income to charity? You're super charitable," I said, poking Kate on the shoulder.

"Yeah. I don't need that much money, so I want to share it with people who need more money," Kate said.

My heart melts when she says things like that. Thank God she's not greedy! It helps me feel better about the rather desperate financial situation I've put our family into for nearly four years now, when I quit my full-time job and took a part-time position so I could spend more time at home writing and spending time with my family. Unpaid time, but priceless.

I was going through a bad time in my life. My brother had died a few months before. The grief over his loss, the grief over not being able to convince him there was a good reason to live, to stop drinking and get a liver transplant, that everyone deserves second chances and social support, it was too much, on top of my already fragile mental health state. I have post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the many things that my doctor says led to my PTSD is the sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of the very brother who had just died. He and his neighbor friend sexually abused me. I developed PTSD, anorexia, chronic anxiety, fibromyalgia, and all sorts of mental health problems. My brother became an alcoholic. The neighbor friend moved away. I don't know what became of him. My best guess is it's not a happy story.

My doctor suggested that in addition to my prescription for psychotropic drugs that I try taking time off work to help combat my panic attacks that increase in frequency when I start to feel overwhelmed with responsibilities and other stressors that exacerbate my PTSD. And, she wanted me to get back into cognitive therapy.

I wanted to try something different. What about writing therapy?

I've had numerous therapists over the years. A few of them have offered good book recommendations to me, for example, the life-changing book The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. But I didn't feel like most of my therapists offered any additional insight into my condition than I could gain from reading a good book. I got more help from the public library than I did from talk therapy.

Not to bash talk therapy. It's life-saving and incredibly helpful to many people. Just not me at this point in my life. I'm too good at faking it. Putting up the mentally-healthy, charming, self-actualized facade and getting the therapist to say ridiculous things to me like, "Becky, I don't think you actually need therapy. You seem to have a pretty good grasp of how to live a healthy life." I've had three therapists over the years "break up" with me, cancelling my future sessions, telling me not to come back, that they had nothing else to offer me. How upsetting is that to a mental case like me? You tell me I'm fine? I'm healthy? I'm on the right track? Fuck you! Then why do I have trouble getting out of bed each day? Why do I chronically worry about everything? Why do I feel so shitty? You're just kicking me out of your office because I've used up my measly six-week allotment of mental health visits this year, and you're afraid I'll be unable to pay out of pocket.

Which is a perfectly reasonable assumption. I can't afford to pay someone hundreds of dollars a month to listen to me tell them I feel shitty. I've got a husband for that. He'll listen to me whine for free as long as I listen to him bitch about his own problems. That's love, baby.

I can't blame therapists for wanting to earn an income. It's nearly impossible to do work that you love with no expectation of gaining an income from it until you're retired and drawing social security. Not in this society. I once had a therapist tell me flat out, "I don't do this because it's my hobby. I'm not a volunteer. I do this because it's my profession, and I need to get paid."

Fair enough. I totally understand that. I just wish we lived in a society that allows mental health practitioners and their patients more time to get to know each other and work through everything the patient wants to work through. None of this time's up, now run along and take your meds and don't come back til the next calendar year. 

Thank God for the book recommendations. Reading good books has helped me maintain a healthy psychiatric balance and follow recommended schedules like a good insurance policy holder.

My latest doctor recommended I cut back my work hours outside the home to give myself time to grieve both my brother's death and my abuser's death, which would take a long time, especially since they were one and the same person. I took it as a prescription to start writing.

Writing frees me. My brother and the neighbor friend told me not to tell anyone what we were doing. "Don't tell, Becky. You don't want Mom to go back to the hospital, do you?"

Mom had been involuntarily hospitalized by her husband and her mother on two different occasions a couple of years before Mom divorced Jim, met my dad, got married, and had me. "Nervous breakdowns." Every time my brothers and sisters would tell me the stories of what it was like when Mom had to stay in the hospital, they said she had a "nervous breakdown". When I got Mom to open up about it, to talk about what she remembers during her time in the hospital, she says the same thing. "I had a nervous breakdown." I used to think that term is a cop out. That's not a real medical diagnosis. When I grew up, when I became a woman in our society, I understood what Mom went through. Her husband was cheating on her. Her mother was abusive. Sometimes the crazy people aren't the ones with the diagnoses. Sometimes the crazy people are the ones telling you you're crazy without acknowledging all the crazy social constructs we live with daily.

I believe many people are misdiagnosed with a mental illness. Or, even if they do genuinely have an altered brain chemistry like me from early childhood trauma, it's not always the illness that's to blame for the shitty situation. If more people felt empowered to speak up, to let their voice be heard, if we give people opportunities to express their grief and grievances, to bitch and moan and say FUCK THIS SHIT even though it's not a very nice thing to say. If more people told their stories and ignored their abusers and bullies and friends and loved ones and said, no, I'm not going to keep quiet any longer, if more people could find the courage to open up about the crap we all slog through we could learn how to help each other better. Tell us why you hurt so we can help you heal.

So I decided I'd write a tell-all. The Great American Novel. An autobiographical fiction book about a woman whose brother has just died of alcoholic induced liver failure and how difficult it is to grieve his loss, especially since he sexually abused her when she was a young girl and he was a young teen.

For some reason no literary agents wanted anything to do with it.

So I tossed that manuscript to the back of my desk drawer and started over.

I'd write a tell-all. A memoir about how my brother has just died of alcoholic induced liver failure and how difficult it is to grieve his loss, especially since he sexually abused me when I was a young girl and he was a young teen.

I basically just went through the first manuscript and changed the names and pronouns and I was done. Unfortunately this also was not good enough for the literary agents.

I got discouraged. After all, I'd had my mother telling me since I was twelve and wrote my first story (about a girl with anorexia...they say write what you know) that I was a gifted writer who was bound to become a best-selling author some day.

I thought about self-publishing for a minute or two before I googled some instructions and got a headache just looking at all the intricate details. I'm a writer. Not a literary agent. Not a marketing expert. Not an editor. Not a wealthy business person who has money to blow on a depressing confessional story. I simply don't have the kind of brain that works that way. I like to write my stories, share them, and move on. I don't have the patience or discipline to work on revision after revision after revision. I don't have the motivation to write a proper query letter or book proposal. I just want to write and then push the "publish" button.

I didn't let my slackerly writer ways get me down completely. Just because I can't seem to follow the rules of being a successful published author doesn't mean I can't write and share my stories with an audience.

I started this blog. It makes sense. I'm a navel-gazing narcissist, so it's a good fit for me. I've kept diaries off and an throughout the years. But I wanted something different than a personal diary. I wanted a way to share my stories with others. I've found that the more I open up about my abuse, the more other people open up to me about their abuse, and the less we all feel like freaks who must keep our dirty secrets to ourselves. Blogging is like group therapy only everyone's at home sipping wine on the couch wearing yoga pants. I mean seriously, how do people with agoraphobia meet for group therapy? It's called social networking.

Blogging is an excellent way to share my stories with the public without having to get approval from any kind of authority. I'm the author. I'm my own authority. Blogging frees me to write about anything. I've opened up and let out forty years of mental anguish, bizarre situations, and even a few jokes. It's wonderful.

As great as blogging is, though, after failing for three years to find someone who wants to pay me to write a book, I decided to go back to work at the library full time. I could still blog. But we could also afford to go on family vacations and buy our daughter a new pair of shoes that form to her own feet instead of giving her hand-me-downs from Will's cousins and people in the community who donate shoes to the thrift store. We could pay off our credit cards and start saving for college.

But getting a full-time job is tough. It's been eight months of applying and I've only gotten an invitation to three interviews, none of which landed me the job, despite my twenty-two years of library experience.

The problem is, during my part-time library sabbatical, I rediscovered my love of working with kids. I began teaching Sunday School last year at our progressive Presbyterian church. Three to six year olds. We read stories and sing songs and make crafts. This volunteer gig is some of the most rewarding work I've done, paid or unpaid.

What can I say? I dig kids. But I don't have a degree in early childhood education. I have no direct on-the-paid-job experience doing story times. Just my volunteer Sunday school gig. I've been working in the adult services part of the library for the past nine years, but that doesn't mean I never work with kids on the job. It's just not my official position. I answer every library patron's questions, regardless of age. I'd be happy to continue in my current position, helping all ages of people, but what I really want to do is tell stories. I want to be Miss Becky, the story time lady.

Mom took me to three different story times at three separate libraries each week until I started kindergarten. My favorite librarian asked us to call her Auntie B. She was so nice. So sweet. So funny. So caring. I love her. I wanted to be like her when I grew up. A librarian story time lady.

Then life happened. I got too shy, too self-conscious, too emotionally unbalanced. I had a lot of work to do on myself before I felt ready to sing songs about sunshine and shake my sillies out in front of a group of grownups. If it were just the kids, I would have been fine long ago. Kids don't intimidate me. It's the parents who make me worry if I'm doing a good enough job.

I've always loved kids. I had been a nanny on summer break during college, and I'd worked as a child care aid at an in-home daycare during high school. I began babysitting at the age of ten. I used to beg my mom to have another kid after me, the youngest of six. I'd draw pictures of what I imagined my family to look like when I was a grown up. I always had a least ten kids.

Then real life happened. Because of all the hard work I had to do mending my psychological wounds and building confidence and emotional strength, I ended up not settling down with Partner Right until I was one-month shy of thirty-four. It took us nearly a year of fun, yet infertile, romps in the sack before Will and I were able to conceive Kate. By the time she was born, I was thirty-five. My doctor recommended that, even though it took us a long time to conceive our first child, we should use birth control until Kate was at least six months old to give my body enough time to heal. Many women are super-fertile in the month or two after they give birth, even though it's stressful to the human body to give birth in short intervals.

We followed our doctors orders. When Katie was six months old we gave the leftovers in our Costco-sized box of condoms (evidently we overestimated the amount of fooling around time we'd have as parents of a newborn) to our single friend, and, voila! I got pregnant. All on my own! Well, Will helped. But you know, no doctors' prescriptions for Clomid and Estrace. No taking my temperature and charting my cycle. Just by expressing love with my husband. We were thrilled.

Then, on Will's birthday to make matters worse, I had a miscarriage. I was barely pregnant. I'd just peed on the stick a couple of days before. But still. We were disappointed, to say the least.

We were disappointed, but hopeful. Will had knocked me up unaided, after all. We were convinced he could do it again. But my aging, subfertile body refused to cooperate and we never conceived again.

For the first few years, I was too busy working a full time job outside the home and taking care of Katie when Will was at work to notice my need for more babies. Then, when Katie turned four, she suddenly became obsessed with wanting another sibling.

"Pleeeeeeeease, Mama. Have another baby! I wanna baby brutha or sista!"

It broke my heart that my ovaries were being so stubborn. "Ovulate, Goddamnit!" I'd say when I was feeling resentful, staring at my lower abdomen. "Dear God, please help us conceive another child," I'd pray softly and meekly whenever cursing at my womb didn't seem to do the trick.

Turns out my ovaries and God had another plan for me. I hate that. I'm a feminist, for God's sake! I like to feel in control of my own body. I get to decide when I will or will not procreate! I'm the boss of my own body!

Nope. Sorry, Ms. Missy. Not gonna happen. Your ovaries and God have other plans. The Universe gets to decide when you will procreate, not you. No matter how much you want it, you don't get to decide the moment you become pregnant. It can take months, years, and sometimes never. You can take pharmaceutical drugs or over-the-counter guaifenesin. You can practice mindfulness. You can pray. You can take up yoga and eat tons of bok choy. You can measure your body temperature and track your hormones and estimate when you're at your fertile peak. You can go to the goddamn doctor's office and have a technician shove an ultrasound probe up your vagina so you can see the contents of your uterus on a freaking screen the whole room can see. You can see globs of darkness the doctor says indicates your ovary has released an ovum and you can call your husband and make arrangements to meet you for a nooner, and still, you have no guarantee that your lovemaking will produce a baby.

I don't know about you, but it's scary to think that I lack agency in my own life. I should learn to accept it. I mean, the Universe won't let me live forever, after all. The Universe gets to decide when I die. Why wouldn't It get to decide when I bring new life into the universe?

Politically, I'm pro-choice because I don't believe the government should control our bodies, but personally I laugh at the term. Pro-choice? Ha! It's not my choice. My choice would be to just snap my fingers and I'm magically pregnant. Like Jesus' mother, Mary, only with a warm hospital bed and an epidural.

Because my own child is now eight and I only get to work with my kiddos in Sunday School for an hour, once a week, I decided to feed my jones for kids by trying to find a job in our youth services department. It made sense to me. I need a full time job, but I need one that doesn't stress me out, so what better job to have than one in which I feel gratified working with kids? Reading stories to kids and teaching parents how to help their children learn early literacy skills, recommending books to awkward tweens and telling teenagers, "It's good to see you today" is important work. Instead of feeling overwhelmed when I work with kids, I feel overjoyed.

But like I said, so far, no luck. I can't just snap my fingers and I've magically got a full time youth services job. I've decided to take on another volunteer gig working with kiddos. I'm applying to work with a Head Start facility in our community. They need classroom helpers to come in once a week or so and read stories, sing songs, and make crafts with preschoolers. I can do that! It's unpaid, but so what? It will be good experience. I figure the more opportunities I get to hone my skills at being Miss Becky the story time lady, the better. And, what volunteers lack in income they more than make up for in rich, interpersonal connections.

So here are my unpaid labors of love: caring for our daughter, blogging, Sunday school teaching, and next, story telling in preschool. I feel proud of myself. Usually.

It's sometimes difficult to feel good about unpaid labor. Our capitalistic society reveres the highest earners--doctors, lawyers, business people. Our youth librarians and preschool teachers are on the lower end of the income spectrum. Stay-at-home parents and volunteer child educators are at the very end. Jack squat. People who want to spend their days reading stories and singing songs and making crafts with four year olds are not paid in material wealth. We must, as a society, begin to see the value of unpaid workers. Whether it's unpaid artists, unpaid caretakers, or unpaid community volunteers. We must learn to respect people for reasons beyond their net income.

As far as I can tell, Jesus didn't have a steady income. He lived off the kindness of strangers, slept on Good Samaritan's beds, broke bread and drank wine with his followers, but I don't recall any stories of him ever picking up the tab. Does that make me love Jesus less? Hell no. Look at all the influence he's had these past two-thousand years? He's spreading the love! His lack of material wealth didn't hold him back. It set him free.

So, I'll continue to write for free. I'll continue to take care of my child for free. I'll teach Sunday school and help out in preschool classrooms for free. And it will set me free.

"If you were a best-selling author, what would you do with all your income?" Kate asked.

This blog is about to hit 100,000 page views, so I've been talking about it a lot lately. Talking about how I might not be a best-selling author, but I feel like what I have to say is reaching people, and that makes me feel proud.

"Oh, I dunno," I said. I thought about it some and couldn't come up with any good ideas. It felt like when either Will or she ask me what I want for Mother's Day or my birthday.

I dunno. Just spending time with you is present enough.

"It can be anything," Kate prompted me. "If you were rich, what would you like to buy?"

"I dunno, Punk. I don't really think about it. I'm not exactly the kind of person who would enjoy being rich. I'd feel guilty and worry all the time about the people on the planet who were starving and homeless and in need. If I were a best-selling author and rich I'd buy our family a nice, comfy house and some good quality clothes, and you know, send you to a really good college and probably travel and see the world. But I think I'd end up giving away most of my riches to charity," I said.

Kate smiled. "Yeah, I knew you'd say that."

Seeing the look of pride on my daughter's face when I finally realized that even if I made tons of money off my writing, I'd probably give most of it away, so why not just give it away for free like I've been doing? Seeing Kate's face at that moment is worth more than all the riches in the world.


"The Best Things In Life are Free" written for the 1927 musical Good News, covered by Lily Bee.
Uploaded to YouTube with this dedication: 

"A cover song dedicated [to] open science and all things open source. Because the best things in life are and should stay free."

Here are the lyrics:
The moon belongs to everyone
The best things in life are free
The stars belong to everyone
They gleam there for you and me
The flowers in spring
The robins that sing
The sunbeams that shine
They're yours, they're mine
And love can come to everyone
The best things in life are free
Amen!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Kids In Mind

***trigger warning: sexual abuse***

Mom bought a new laptop and gave us her used one. She claims she wanted a new one, but I suspect Mom actually bought it so I'd take her used laptop that's in perfectly good shape, knowing I wouldn't let her buy me a new laptop. She's a sneaky gifter like that. She knows I don't like to buy new electronics. I'm too frugal. I much prefer getting other people's free hand-me-downs. I also can't help but worry about the conflict minerals used to make new electronics equipment. I can't stand to think that someone might have gotten raped so I can have the next new shiny device. Mom's not a worrier like me. She pays no attention to world events beyond her control. Buying new gadgets troubles her not at all. So I have a new (used) laptop.

We are a three-laptop household now, one for each of us--Will, Kate, and me. Guess who uses the crappiest one?

The used laptop Mom gave us is in better shape than the other two laptops we have, one of which is only six months younger than our eight-year-old daughter who kept bugging us to get another computer so she and her dad can play Minecraft together. My computer is too old to handle much more than this blog and Facebook. The audio died on my laptop years ago, so I can watch videos, I just can't hear them.

"Mom! You need a new laptop!" Katie's been nagging me for years.

About a year ago, my brother Jay got us a sweet deal on our second-best laptop. It's used, but it had been refurbished, so it's like new. I used it for about a day before Will and Kate loaded Minecraft on it and designated it as the "gaming computer". I don't understand why they need to hear the villagers mumble, but I don't argue with them. The way I see it, I'm the person who cares the least about fancy electronics, so even though my brother and my mother keep plying my family with good quality laptops, I still use the one on the fritz and let Will and Kate use the good ones when we're all home at the same time.

Kate was so excited when we became a three-laptop family. She's in third grade. She's at that stage in life where she's starting to notice the haves and the have nots, and it upsets her when she thinks we're one of the have nots. Many of her classmates have access to technology that blows my mind. They have their own smartphones. Eight-year-olds. Their families have iPads and computers out the wazoo. When I was growing up, we had a decades-old set of the Encyclopedia Britannica and a library card. If I wanted to know more about Egyptian Hieroglyphics, I pulled out the dusty old encyclopedia set and read the section on Egypt. Then I asked Mom to drive me to the library so I could check out some library books about Egypt and take a look at their big dictionary.

I loved that big dictionary. Standing on a step stool so I could see it on top of the podium, like I was about to give a great speech of tremendous historical and literary importance. I stood there silently reading words, pretending I was saying them to a crowd of fans, screaming and fainting and weeping after every word I utter.

I was a curious kid. Observant. But only about peculiar things. Not things like math facts and homework due dates. But human nature. The way the words that come out of people's mouths make other people's faces change. "You're so insightful." I've been hearing that since before I was old enough to look up the word "insightful" in the big dictionary at the library. All I knew was that people treated me as if I were wise beyond my years. My sister who is eight years older than I am, then a teenager, came to me for dating advice. Mom talked to me about her relationship with my dad as if I were her therapist. Neighborhood kids would fight and then come to me for advice. I enjoyed feeling helpful. I enjoyed feeling knowledgeable.

But still, I think I'd have fewer panic attacks today if I had been less of everyone's therapist and more of a child when I was a child. Sometimes I think my panic attacks are my body's way of saying, "OK, it's your turn to go crazy!" When I was eleven, my therapist told me that often it's not the person who is put in therapy who needs it, but everyone else around them.

I knew a lot about human sexuality for my age, I realize now. It seems as if I always knew about penises and vaginas and what people did with them. I knew that bodies were shared with other people, sometimes because of love, and sometimes because of fear. I was sexually abused by my brother and a neighbor at such a young age I never really got to go through the whole childhood innocence phase of life. When it was time for the talk at school, where the teachers and school nurse separated us by gender into two rooms and we talked about periods and bras and how babies get made, it was such a ridiculous ho-hum moment to me. We were what, eleven? I sat there listening to the nurse answer one of my classmates' questions about erections thinking,

I saw my first erection eight years ago, when I was three.

I felt a twang of jealousy over my classmates' naivete. I found a bookmark at the mall that said, "Ignorance is bliss" and I said to myself, yes. I began to resent knowing too much. I developed anorexia a year after I started having my period in fourth grade and two years after I developed breasts in third grade. I hated my body. I hated the attention I got from it. Teenage boys hitting on me the summer after fourth grade at the swimming pool. Grown men staring at my chest. My mom's ex husband meeting me for the first time when I was in seventh grade at my sister's wedding, looking me up and down and saying, "Your mother was an early developer, too."

I read in a book that anorexia often develops in young women who are just beginning puberty. Losing weight means you lose your breasts, you stop having your period. You regress back to childhood. The childhood I sometimes felt I never had.

It wasn't just the sexual abuse and inappropriate attention I experienced as a child that fucked with my ideas about sex and sexuality. I lived in a lenient household when it came to many rules. The rules I had were doosies, though. More like commandments from God.

Thou shalt not sit in Dad's comfy chair.

Thou shalt not talk when Dad gets home from work and just wants to eat his dinner in peace, Goddamnit!

Thou shalt not drink Dad's canned pop in the fridge. Those are for his lunches, and do you know how much more expensive canned pop is than the 2-liters?

Thou shalt not complain when Dad says it's time for you to cook dinner, do the laundry, mow the lawn, or do the dishes.

Thou shalt not switch the channel on the TV when Dad is in the house. Not even for a sec while he gets up to pee.

Thou shalt not make suggestions for where we will eat dinner or what movie we'll go see. Your sister can take you to see that Muppet movie.

It's true. I remember seeing two "kids'" movies when I was an actual kid. Mom took me to see "Bambi" when it was re-released in theaters in 1975. Mom had been four when Bambi was first released in 1942. I was four when she took me to see it. I don't remember much of the movie, except that I liked Thumper. I remember looking over at my mom during the scene when Bambi realizes his mother has been killed by the hunter. Mom was shuffling through her purse, trying to find a tissue to wipe the tears from her face. I laughed. I know, what an asshole thing to do, right?

I don't know why I laughed. I don't remember feeling anything at that moment except how weird it was to see my mom cry. I'd heard stories of her "nervous breakdowns" that had happened before I was born, but the Mommy I knew didn't cry. She didn't yell. If Dad was throwing a fit, Mom would just turn and walk down the hall to her bedroom and shut the door. Sometimes I'd peek in on her. She'd be reading, or napping. Sometimes she'd be up in her chair, in front of the small TV, embroidering a throw pillow or drawing a picture of some flowers we didn't have in our garden.

The other kids' movie I saw as a kid was "The Muppet Movie" with one of my sisters who is fifteen years older than me. It was such a special treat, getting to go see a movie I'd like with my sister. It must have been my birthday or something. I don't remember.

I just remember seeing too many adult movies when I was a kid. Just going off memory, here's a list of movies I saw way-too-young:

What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?, It was the summer of 1971. I was a few months old, asleep in the back seat of my parents car, parked at the drive-in. It was the third movie of a three-movie set. My parents like to joke around that it was my first X rated movie. They took me with them so they wouldn't have to pay for a babysitter.

The Exorcist. 1973. I was three. This movie I remember seeing in the theater with my sisters and my mom. Or maybe my mom just dropped us off, because I can't imagine Mom getting through this horror show herself, let alone letting her three year old watch it. I hated it. And here's a telling part. The scene I remember most was when the girl peed on the floor in front of other people. At three, having an accident in front of a group of grown ups was about the worst thing I could think of. It stuck in my mind. So did the demonic possession, the blood, the vomit, you know, the whole, horrible mess. To this day I still hate horror movies. I can drum up enough anxiety on my own. I don't need to pay someone to fill me with fear.

Annie Hall. 1977. I was seven. I used to say this is my favorite movie of all time. Then I realized what a creep Woody Allen is, personally, having an affair when he was fifty-six with his then-girlfriend's daughter, who was nineteen at the time. Eww. I also realize now that it's weird for a seven-year-old to enjoy an adult sex comedy so much that she claims it's her favorite movie for years. When I was seven, my favorite movie should have been Star Wars, regardless of what the Academy said.

10 by Blake Edwards. 1979. I can't imagine Edwards intended his film to be viewed by someone who wasn't yet ten years old. I was nine when my parents took me to see this film at the theater. It was my first introduction to Ravel's "Bolero". I felt classy.

Kids growing up in the Seventies had it different. There was no 24/7 TV channel devoted to children's programming. There was "Sesame Street", "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood", and "Captain Kangaroo", but by the time Dad got home from work, it was switched to the news, "All in the Family", and "Police Woman".

"Angie Dickinson's got a nice rack," Dad would say in between bites of popcorn.

To this day I can't stand the use of the word "rack" to name a woman's breasts. The funny thing is, I've got a nice rack. People have told me I've got a nice rack my whole life and it doesn't make me feel good. I hate that word. I hate having a nice rack. My breasts? They're great! They fed my daughter. They're huge and bouncy and fun in the hands of my husband. But dang, I like to share my breasts with a select few, so when you call out "nice rack" please understand that your words are hurtful, not a compliment.

My parents were pretty awful when it came to protecting me from sexual abuse. They were too wrapped up in their own lives to pay attention to what negative lessons I was learning about life from the movies and TV shows I watched. But I don't really blame them. They didn't know better. It was the Seventies. Have you seen "The Ice Storm?" Life really was like that. Key parties. Affairs. Not my parents--they were movie buffs, but they didn't act out those sexy dramas in real life. They didn't swing. But my friends' parents did. And worse, they didn't talk to their kids about sexuality. They hid it from them like a dirty secret. My parents fucked up a lot, but the one thing they gave me by being so lenient is an open, curious mind.

The thing about having parents like mine--parents who didn't want to pay for a babysitter, so they took me to see adult movies when I was a kid, who told dirty jokes in front of me, who didn't put a lock on the cabinet where Dad kept his stash of "Playboys"--having permissive parents led me to feel comfortable in my curiosity. I didn't feel ashamed of my questions about how the human body works or why we have certain feelings. I felt like sex was a natural part of life. And just like everything in life, it could be both good and bad and you have to sort things out for yourself. With help from people who care about you.

It's no wonder I became a librarian. The number one law of librarianship is that people deserve access to information, good and bad. It's called Intellectual Freedom, and it's something librarians take very seriously. It's the idea that just because someone wants to read The Anarchist's Cookbook doesn't mean they intend to set off any bombs. And when it comes to kids, it's up to their parents and caregivers to help them navigate their research.

My mom helped me navigate the best way she knew how. Through pop culture. Through lots of no-holds-barred conversations. When I was in junior high, Mom and I would watch The Dr. Ruth Show on TV together. Mom got me Dr. Ruth's Game of Good Sex for Christmas when I was fifteen. I memorized the answers on the backs of the cards and quizzed myself often.

I had no interest in having sex during this time in my life when I was the most fascinated by sex. I remember feeling like a late bloomer when it came to my libido. I didn't have my first orgasm until I was twenty-six. I had mad crushes on both boys and girls from the time I was about four, but the tingle I felt around them was in my heart and in my brain, not in my clitoris.

In tenth grade biology, my teacher, a forty-something man with a son just a couple of years older than me, held up my test in front of the entire class and pointed to my score. 100%. My hands covered my face as I sat silently trying to ignore everyone around me. I knew he was trying to embarrass me. He didn't like me because I refused to dissect a frog. I told him it was against my religious beliefs. He rolled his eyes at me and gave me an F for that test. I still got a B in the overall class, thanks to my knowledge of human sexuality.

"Well looky here! Becky got a 100% on her human reproduction test! Good job!" he said to the class.

I don't remember hearing any snickering from my classmates. I just remember silence. And the warmth under my hands from the blood rushing to my face. Maybe I just ignored them. Maybe they were too embarrassed, too.

I told my mom about it. "My biology teacher is such a jerk!"

"He's just jealous because he knows you learned that stuff on your own, not because you were paying attention in class," Mom said.

Mom knows me well.

When we got home from picking up our new (used) laptop from Mom's house, Katie immediate sat down in the comfy chair and pushed the power button.

"Are you going to play Minecraft?" I asked.

"No," she said without looking up from the screen.

"Why not?" I asked. 

"Because it's not installed on here. Yet." Kate looked up and smiled a little too confidently for my taste. No doubt this "yet" would cost me money.

"So what are you going to do first on our new computer?" I asked.

"I'm doing research," Kate said and returned her gaze toward the screen. I leaned over to get a better look at the screen. She was on some kind of Wiki for Five Nights at Freddy's. "Oh! Are you going to play 'Five Nights at Freddy's'? I thought you said it was too scary?"

Kate looked up from the screen and stared at me blankly. "Mom. I'm not going to play 'Five Nights at Freddy's'. I told you that. It's too scary for me. I'm just doing research about it. That way when Arianna and Brayden talk about it at lunch I'll know the story."

Kate is eight. She's a sloppy eater. She can't stand to sleep alone. She leaves her toys all over the floor and then yells at the dog when she finds the toys mangled and shredded, chewed to bits on the dog's blanket.

"Wipe your mouth!"

"Go to sleep!"

"Put away your toys!"

We shout these things in our home on a fairly regular rotation. It rarely works. On the occasions when shouting does not help our daughter mature at a rate that pleases us more, we grit our teeth, look to each other and say, "She's only eight."

Eight is still a kid. She has plenty of time to grow up. Til then, I'm doing my best not to stifle her curiosity while protecting her from abuse, from growing up too fast, from innocence lost.

"Do I need to put some kinds of parental locks on this laptop? I'm afraid you're going to stumble upon a site that's too scary or too sexy and it might frighten you," I said.

"No, Mom. Don't worry. I'm just doing research," Kate assured me.

"Well, I want you to come to Dad and me with your questions about sex and, well, anything. You know that, right?"

"Yeah, Mom. You've told me that a thousand times. I'm not researching sex. I'm researching a game my friends like to talk about," she said.

A game I know nothing about.

"Let's look it up on Common Sense Media," I said.

Kate sighed. She knew I'd stand there nagging her until she handed over the laptop and let me do some research of my own.

We looked up Five Nights at Freddy's. "Wow, it suggests the game's for ages fourteen and up," I said.

"Yeah, Mom. I told you it's scary. I don't want to play it. I  just want to know what the story is about. I want to understand what my friends are talking about," Kate explained.

"Your friends who are in third grade? Why are their parents letting them play this game?"

"I don't know, Mom. They probably haven't done their research." Kate smiled at me like, it's OK, Mom. I'm going to be fine.

It's hard not to hover when you want to protect your child. Some helicopter parents worry about letting their kids play outside unsupervised. I worry about letting my child google unsupervised. But I trust her. She's smart. She's confident. She knows what she likes and what she doesn't like. She knows she can ask her dad and me anything. She's going to be fine.

Deep breaths, Mom. Deep breaths. It's a scary world. Our kids grow up too fast. But we can't lock them up and take away their internet searches. They need to learn how to be responsible, and they can't learn that if we don't trust them. We can guide them without smothering their fiery curiosity.

If you worry about the games, movies, and books that spark your child's curiosity, do your research! Here, I'll help:

Here's a good site for reviews of video games, movies, books, and all sorts of media: Common Sense Media. It's one of my favorites. It doesn't simply give you a rating, it explains in detail how much sex and violence and profanity there is in a story so that you, the person who knows your child best, can decide what they are capable of handling. Another resource I like that's just for movies is Kids In Mind. The name itself sums it up. Kids in mind. Instead of expecting our kids, with their immature needs and innocent minds, to watch whatever movie we want to see, let's keep their needs in mind until they're old enough to think for themselves.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Smells Like Omega Spirit

This article got me thinking: Sense of smell reveals fat prejudice, study shows

Evidently many people assume fat people smell worse than thin people. Without even thinking about it. Just blind acceptance of a social norm.

My racist grandmother told me that black people smell bad, because their hair smells like wet sheep. I thought she was an idiot, so I didn't believe her, even though she owned a beauty shop and was a licensed cosmetologist. Later, when I had a girlfriend who is black, my assumption that my grandmother's ideas were not based on factual evidence proved true when I discovered that my girlfriend's hair smelled like shampoo.

Lux soap advertisement from my grandmother's young days
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Beauty lies are not reserved for racists. Corporations peddle their wares to anyone they can convince will be better off with their product. The company that sells Lysol used to run ads aimed at housewives suggesting they douche with Lysol to cover up their feminine stench. Lysol. Seriously. Ouch, I can feel the burn vicariously just thinking about it.

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Guess what, Ladies? There is nothing wrong with your natural smell. You don't need to buy chemicals to have an inviting vagina.

Companies tell us stories to convince us that we'd be better off with their products. The narrative goes like this: black people smell bad, and women smell bad. And now, fat people smell bad, too.

Question: Does Jes, the hot fat chick, smell bad?
Hint: this is not a scratch and sniff screen. 
Answer: Who the fuck knows?

Blacks, women, and fatties. We must be too wild, too uncivilized to live amongst the well groomed upper echelons of our human pack. The fair skinned. The men. The thin.

When I visited the wolves at the conservation center in Colorado, the tour guide asked if anyone had a question. I raised my hand and asked, "What's the purpose of the omega wolf in the social order?"

"The purpose?" The tour guide asked. I nodded. "The purpose of the omega wolf is to give the other wolves someone to pick on."

I love wolves. I admire their ability to collaborate and work as a pack to hunt, and to care for their young. But I don't understand the idea of the omega dog. Just as I don't understand the idea of the underdog in our human social order. Black, women, fat folks, we are, too often, the omegas of the human pack.

The difference? Humans are not wolves. We are not wild. We are not destined to succumb to our base needs. We can rationally think, what is the purpose of picking on the omega human? To make me feel better? What if I don't feel better? What if we could ask around the others in our pack and see if they feel the same? Does it really make you feel better to pick on someone else? Or do you feel better when you stick up for the omega and let others see that we've evolved past needing an underdog to kick around?

I understand the purpose of an Alpha. Every social group needs someone's decisions to blame bad outcomes on. I understand the Betas. The keepers of social order. The worker bees and hunters in a wolf pack. But the Omegas? Whose purpose is solely to give the others someone to pick on? Eh, let's do away with that role in our human social order. Shall we?