Saturday, December 22, 2012

Marmalade Meg's Boot Camp for Broken Hearted Boys

On Wednesday my son got his first girlfriend. It still works the same way it did when I was a kid, a boy spends weeks or months working up the nerve to ask a girl to go with him, then the girl usually says yes, sometimes because she has been waiting weeks or months for him to ask her, and sometimes just because she doesn’t know what else to say...

Friday I took him to get his new girlfriend a Christmas present. He told me that he’d liked her for a long, long time. Probably, I think, that means since like October. He said he loves her. He asked for my help finding the perfect gift for her: something “small... not too much... but nice. I don’t want to get her something crappy.” Well, what does she like?  “She wears lipstick sometimes, but not very much.”  I see, so you’re thinking makeup?  “No,” he smiled sheepishly at his shoes.  Alright, what’s your budget?  He told me he had $60. I took him to my favorite little boutique, a tiny basement shop full of bright, ornate textiles and jewelry imported from all over the world. The gorgeous owner of the shop helped him select a pair of silver and turquoise earrings: small... not too much... but nice.  

A couple hours after we finished the hot cocoa he treated me to after our shopping, the girlfriend broke up with him. He had a girlfriend for two days. The duration of the relationship doesn’t lessen the impact of the blow. Nor does his age. As his mother, there is no pain from which I will not try to shield him... except this one. I would willingly throw myself in front of a train, a bullet, a stampede of rhinoceros to save him, and I’d be grateful for the opportunity to spare a life as magnificent and full of potential as his. But a broken heart? To deny him the opportunity to stand for a brief two days in that warm meadow, to feel love, even knowing that the hours of sunlight are waning, and that sooner or later the skies will grow dark and his heart will bruise at the loss of it? I’d never stand between him and that place.  I hate, really hate, that he is feeling rejected and confused. I know that he feels deficient, like he wasn’t good enough for her.  I know that this hurts, and in a very real way that should not be minimized or trivialized because of his age.  But I wouldn’t take it from him. He earned this badge. I’ll sew it on his sleeve. He did a brave thing, he asked a girl to go out with him, a girl he liked for a long, long time, a girl he loved. And she said yes, and he felt accepted and happy... for two whole days.  

How does a good mama console a child in the throes of his first desperate heartache? Off the cuff, my reaction is to help him play it down as no big deal, the first of many heartaches: Girls are fickle... the more you love the more you risk losing, and that is no reason to avoid it. That’s what makes it worth doing. But that doesn’t feel true when you’re the one aching. You’ll do about anything to ensure that you’ll never have to feel this way again. I can’t prove to him yet that falling in love and getting rolled by it have the same potential to awaken his spirit. Then there’s the old I know this hurts now but time will smooth it over, it won’t feel this way forever...  while I teach him to properly feed his feelings the way the heartbroken have been doing for centuries, with two fingers in a bowl of brownie batter and The Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels on the record player. I’m not so far removed from 12, nor from real heartbreak, to recall that time just stops in that place, that every minute is a torturous new wormhole back to the exact moment you heard those words: I don’t want you.

My best plan for him is to convince him that right now he should take care of the him that he is becoming. Okay, so right now you’re not irresistible to girls. You’re shy and awkward and you don’t know how to talk to them. You’re in the seventh grade and you feel like a complete misfit most of the time, right? Well, you are. Everyone is. But junior high doesn’t last forever for kids with grades like yours.  Someday you’re going to be 25, so let’s take a look at that guy. I can already tell you that he is going to be very handsome, with warm blue-grey eyes, broad shoulders and an incredible head of hair. His cheeks will still flush excitedly when he talks about the things that are interesting to him, the way they did when he was a kid. The next 10 years of your life should be a sort of boot camp to set that guy up. It won’t guarantee immunity from heartbreak. You’re going to have those. But it is a better way to pass the time than video games:

1. Start reading the favorite books of the people you find most interesting. Probably your mom is at the top of the list of people you find most interesting, but there may be some others, too. Your mom will start you with Vonnegut, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and the Johns: Cheever and Updike. Your weirdo stepdad is going to park you with Raymond Carver, Tom McGuane, even Bukowski when you’re old enough. Ask your cousin Donna, the smartest person in the world, what she liked when she was your age. Ask your Ahma, the kindest person in the world, what influenced her to step so far outside of herself every day. Did you know that Papa is a poet? He has fantastic books. Ask him. Read these books when you’re young and because you want to understand the voices that have influenced the people you love. Read them before you’re old enough to do so stupidly and with your own dumb ego filtering the author’s voice.  There is little more absurd to me than seeing a 20 year old kid reading Charles Bukowski on a bench outside a coffee shop. That’s pooper reading, friend. Keep it by the toilet where you can really focus.  For God’s sake, not out in public just for the benefit of being seen holding the book.

2. Work out. Learn to take a little time every day to prepare your body for the wretched chemical muck you’re going to have to swim in for the next eight to ten years. Puberty is not easy on your body or your mind. You can’t outrun it, but you can walk quickly around the block every day and do some push-ups to keep it in check.

3. Be a good brother. Listen to your sisters. You have the benefit of living with women, which will lend itself forever to you understanding them a little better than your counterparts who don’t have sisters. If you let it. That means you have to plug in with them, not shut them out. These sisters are my gift to you, my masterpieces. You’ll have them your whole life, I hope. You’re welcome.

4. Let girls teach you how to kiss. There's nothing more disappointing than an otherwise perfect guy who is a terrible kisser. It's a deal breaker for most girls. Your first few girlfriends will be the ones to teach you all about it. Pay attention to their cues, and ask them questions about kissing. It's awkward, but worth it.  

5. Talk to the men in your life about sex. You can talk to me, but I know that’s just really uncomfortable and weird, so you don’t have to. Sometimes I’ll talk to you about it, but I can dig that you’d rather talk to the dudes about your stuff. Do that. Please. Ask them about masturbation, and about how to prepare yourself for what’s going to happen to you and your body and your mind and your completely-normal-happens-to-every-boy-obsession with all things sexual. Talk to men, so you don’t feel like a freak. Don’t, I repeat DO NOT!! listen to the dumbfuck boys at school. They don’t know what they’re talking about any more than you do. They’ll feed you bad information and then measure their penises or something. Jesus, I don’t know how you guys walk around with those things.  When you feel overwhelmed by the hormones, see step 2.

6. Learn to talk to people. Slow, baby steps for you, I know. Practice on other kids whose moms think verbal communication is important. They’re out there. Can you imagine the advantage you’ll have when you can engage in a face to face conversation with a cute girl and all the other boys can do is to weakly text her UR a QT? Some of those guys aren’t even going to be able to make eye contact with a girl. Others won’t be able to spell. Seriously, kid, you’re going to dominate. You are so, so incredibly charming.

7. Don’t bitch about your chores. You should be thanking me. I know you won't thank me for a while, but if you follow my advice in steps 1-5, you’ll be a boy who is smart, handsome, well-read, in great physical and mental shape, a great kisser with a healthy attitude about sex and a talent for talking and listening. If you can also make dinner and wash laundry, you will probably be on the cover of Time Magazine by the time you’re 30. You can thank me then.

8. Don't assume that you're going to get your heart broken every time you have a girlfriend. Sometimes you will. Sometimes you're going to be the one breaking hearts. Someday, someone is going to feel about you the way you feel about this girl, and you may or may not feel the same way. It's not much easier to be the one leaving.

9. It might just be gas. Sometimes breaking up with someone feels a lot like a big bubble in your gut. Sometimes, it actually is, and getting back on your feet is as easy as passing it.

10. Hug your mom a lot. With both arms and big squeezes and no pats. Pats are dismissive. Now let's go return these damn earrings.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Love: An Empty Black Duffle Bag Under the Bed

“Well, we met at a dinner party,” the woman explained to the guests seated with her at the table.  The meal was finished, the table cleared of all the clutter of lunch plates and silverware.  The six of them rested their elbows on the table, their chins on their hands.  They sipped at their coffee and listened to the story of the woman and her husband.  Sunlight shone on her through the big front window of the restaurant, and she smiled while she remembered.  “He knew someone I had gone to undergraduate school with at ___“  (Likely some small, liberal arts college whose name I did not catch. Not that I was trying, mind you, to catch the name, or any other part of the conversation. I’m trained not to listen. Just pour the coffee and move along. But sometimes things stick out). “We just had so much in common. We were so compatible. He was a churchgoer, I was a churchgoer... our backgrounds were almost identical. It was very natural for us to marry.”  

That is lovely, said the voice in my head, though it knew we should not have been eavesdropping. Tsk, honestly, a seasoned professional such as yourself, listening in and making silent internal commentary on a complete stranger’s love story...  Still, it is lovely, the idea of having so much in common, to be settled with someone without having to wade around in the shit, feeling blindly with your bare hands for another something you can grab onto, for one more small, shiny, reasonable argument to stay together. I reset tables and polished silverware, and tried not to think about it.

Remember when you met him? the voice said on our walk home. Remember that first year?  God, that was a fucking mess. It was my fault. I instigated the whole thing, that first night, that night that lasted a year, the world’s longest one night stand. It was Christmastime. I blindsided that songwriter with arrant seduction when he tossed his cigarette from behind his microphone.  It was perched in his lips while he sang, smoke drifted to his squinting eyes. His hands were too busy to hold it, so he tossed it to the floor. It rolled toward me where I sat with my friend Bro, and came to rest near my black suede cowboy boot.  I could have stomped it out for him. That would have been the kind thing to do. He was just trying to keep the smoke out of his eyes. Instead, I leaned forward and retrieved it as casually as he had cast it off, brought it to my mouth and inhaled while he watched. He didn’t miss a beat, just raised his eyebrows in the middle of his lyric. Ohhhhh boy, said Bro, and stood up to get himself a drink. Indeed.

Later that night in my empty kitchen, near the back of my empty house, the songwriter and I stood at the counter (there were no chairs) sipping whiskey while he rambled on and on about something. I pretended to listen. Seizing a break in his monologue, I kissed him. Mostly just to shut him up. He kept talking until the kiss registered. It only took a minute or two for him to catch up.

We had nothing in common. I knew I’d never see him again. I knew that if I did, it would be no big deal to nod politely from across the room in quiet acknowledgment that we’d shared the most impressive, least awkward First-Time in the history of what my 12 year old son bashfully calls: What Humans Do.  First-Times are supposed to be artless and blundering. That’s the nature of discovery, the fumbling, stumbling, clumsy and unpolished, how many left feet are in this bed anyway? maneuvering that two people who don’t know each other very well must do to get to through that first dance. That first foreign kiss buzzes unfamiliar and strange on your mouth, so different than how you are used to being kissed, so unlike the last person who kissed you. The First-Time is the most uncoordinated series of movements two people will ever make. Usually. Except this First-Time. This First-Time was a perfect waltz.

Still, we had nothing in common. He woke the next day in an empty house, no furnishings or books or records or photos to clue him in to who I really might be. I was gone. Two days later, a voice on the phone; he’d tracked me down: I’ve got this face in my head, I can’t get rid of it... I was thinking of coming to town tomorrow... Ohhhhh boy, said the voice in my head, and I stood up to make myself a drink. Indeed.

And so it was for the next year. The songwriter would come to town, carrying with him a small black duffle bag that rested near the front door. The house began to transform around it. I ripped out flooring, replaced cabinets, painted, bought some furniture. I scored a free piano. In the early mornings, the songwriter wrote songs on the piano, then went back to bed. The kids playfully plonked away on it in the afternoons, hours after the songwriter had taken his black bag and driven 84 miles back to his town, to his home. Many times that year he took his black bag and seemed to be leaving for good. Many times I wanted him to. We were incompatible. Nothing in common. It wasn’t ever supposed to go that far, anyway.  He kept finding a reason to come back. I kept finding a reason to ask him to, or to at least open the door to him when he did.  

Then one day, the lid blew off the kettle and the songwriter was gone.  I don’t remember the reason, but he was gone. Really gone. It was Christmastime. I could not stop crying. Oh shit.  Shitshitshitshitshit. My first broken heart. I had no idea. All these years, all the breakups, even a failed marriage... I had no idea it could hurt this much. I buried myself in work and taking care of the kids and getting ready for Christmas. At night, while they slept, I cleaned the house. I washed baseboards and dusted blinds and scrubbed the dark corners of the brand new cabinets while Ricki Lee Jones echoed off the hardwood floors of the kitchen. Fuck him, I sobbed quietly, pulling my mascara-stained tank top over my face, sinking into my kitchen floor. No. Fuck you. Pull yourself together, asshole. You have no business falling apart like this. Get it together, or so help me... then I’d grip my sponge with weak resolution, and clean until I could sleep. I’d wake a few hours later, sip tea until it was time to get the kids up.  

I caught a glimpse of myself one of those nights in the mirror I’d hung by the front door. I looked... real. It was like someone had peeled me, stripped the bark right off. There was something under my skin that I hadn’t seen before. A whole lot, like a really whole, whole lot, of crying will do that, I guess. All the makeup washes away and you get all dewy and your eyes look an entirely new shade of blue against that bright pink backdrop.

That’s how he found me a few days after Christmas: blotchy, puffy, bright blue eyes refusing to make contact with his, wearing pajamas and clutching a cleaning rag in the middle of the night. I didn’t ask why he came back.  

The black bag didn’t sit by the front door after that. Soon it was flattened and empty under the bed and, unless the songwriter was touring, its contents hung loosely in the upstairs closet.

My father was concerned. Quite. I sat in my parents’ living room and told him the truth: Dad, I’ve waited my whole life to feel this way... My parents, once incompatible people who have successfully navigated - and sometimes forcibly hacked through - over forty years of marriage, nodded their quiet understanding, then wished us well. I imagine they laughed at me when I drove away.

My parents met when they were fifteen. My mother was a doe-eyed, sweet and pretty 4H-er visiting from the country. My dad was a handsome and charming duck-tailed kid who played guitar and took her out for her first-ever slice of pizza. That’s not code for something I don’t want to think about my parents doing. She really hadn’t ever had pizza before. She went back to the country. They wrote. He took the bus to visit her, gave her a ring that turned her finger green.  Years later, when he got home from the Navy, he happened to look out the front window while she was driving by. He chased her, intercepted her from driving into an entirely different future, one where I don’t even exist.  

Theirs has not always been an easy love story, but it is a true love story. A story of true love.  They had no more in common, and maybe even less, when they married than they’d had as a fifteen year old country mouse and city mouse. They just loved each other like crazy. When I think now about how I perceived their marriage as a little kid, it’s like someone had given them a garage full of all the parts to build a beautiful car. They put it together over years. Their knuckles got scraped up. They sometimes looked around bewildered for the right tools to do the job. A couple of times they had to strip it down and start over. They didn’t always keep that a secret from us. We were witness to the effort, the clanging of ratchets, their frustration and their victories.  Look Karen! The transmission is finished!

I don’t live with them anymore.  I haven’t for years, but I imagine these days it’s probably just a couple of tune-ups a year in between long cruises in the beautiful car they made. Sometimes compatibility breeds a life-long love, sometimes it’s the love that holds your hand to the fire until you scream Fucking fine, already! We’ll find a way to make it work!

That is lovely, says the voice in my head, to work so hard and so long for something. And how handy to have that beautiful story to tell when your kids ask how you met the songwriter. ‘How did your dad and I meet? Well, I can’t tell you that story, because it makes me sound really slutty. Would you like to hear how Ahma met Papa... ?’

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Bully Zone

When I walked into the big elementary school for my first Back to School Night eight years ago, when my oldest was entering kindergarten, I was immediately taken with the abundance of anti-bullying posters that decorated the halls.  There were colorful bears and lions in every hall illustrating that bullying is bad, describing behaviors that are considered bullying, offering advice on what to do if you are bullied, if someone else is being bullied, if you suspect someone is being bullied.  There were big signs declaring school a NO BULLY ZONE.  It’s been a constant theme since we started school.  Every year the kids sign a pledge not to bully other people, and vowing to report suspected bully behavior to the school authorities.

I know that all the posters and assemblies are well-intended. I believe many schools do their best to address the issue, but the roots of bullying are deep in our culture.  As the parent of a child who has been bullied and socially ostracized, I have a pretty good idea of the disparity between how we educate our kids about the nature of bullying and what their real experience with it is.

We are teaching them to look for this:

Johnny Lawrence, leave Daniel alone!

when in fact, it can be far more subversive. Bullying can be invisible to everyone except the kid it’s happening to, and it might even be happening within the rules of play, inside the ring, so to speak:

For the ostracized kid, it’s very real and very painful.  As a parent, you might hit a wall with the administrators who say they want to be informed of bullying. Your kid might tell you that you should definitely not get involved, that you will only make things worse. If you’re his mama, when you sense his defeat, his lack of confidence, you know what must be done. So you teach him what you can:

Like Mr. Miyagi, I also look great in coveralls.

And you send him back into the lion’s den to face this... every day:

Then one day, he goes and does something exactly like this:

...and through your proud tears you silently cheer Ohmygod the crane?? This is never going to work. It's suicide! Holy Shit, it worked! Wax on, Wax off, Daniel-San!!!

Things are better for my son this year than they were last. Not great, but better. Last night, I dragged him and my 10 year old daughter to a seminar on bullying. I guess it wasn’t exactly a seminar, it was more like a community forum. A discussion facilitated by a moderator who posed questions about bullying to a panel of guests, then encouraged audience participation. We didn’t participate. The kids because they were younger than anyone in the room and they're always uncomfortable and embarrassed about everything when I'm with them, and I because I didn’t want to embarrass them or make them more uncomfortable than they already were. But we listened. After, we had our own conversation about what we heard.

It was interesting to me how many definitions of “bullying” were submitted by the audience and members of the panel.  And how many questions there were to consider. What was agreed upon is that bullying is the act of making someone feel "other-ed." Like, less than, not as good, crappier, hence, not entitled to the same rights and benefits of those who are on the better list. Rights like getting to walk through the hall unmolested, or going from Monday morning all the way til Friday afternoon without being called a fag. Pretty basic rights. These kids aren't asking to be elevated to a superior status, or to have special considerations made for them... they're not expecting homecoming court, they just want to not feel so "other-ed."  

When I say that things are "better, not great, but better" for my kid this year, I mean that although he spends more time by himself than most other kids do, no one calls him names anymore. He crane kicked those little Johnny Lawrence fuckers in the teeth when he joined the football team and ran circles around most of them on the field. He's perfectly content just being left alone, and I'm content for him.

That doesn't give us the green light to close the door on this uncomfortable topic. On the contrary, our family has a personal and very painful understanding of this subject, thus an obligation to keep our awareness and sensitivity to it... acute. My objective as their mama is to help them stay aware, and to keep them on the side of advocacy for those who are on the receiving end of ostracism. They are not allowed to be bystanders of bullying. They are expected to stand up for the underdog, whether themselves or another guy. They are expected to know their own hearts and to speak their own voices, not to regurgitate the voice of a group they may be - or aspire to be - affiliated with.

My hope is that by the time they are adults with voting privileges, this will translate to a conscientious approach to civic issues, because there are no posters in City Hall, at the State House, in our House of Congress, on our Senate floor that look like this:

Though we lobby furiously to raise awareness in our schools, it's acceptable at the state level to enact legislation that ostracizes entire groups of people. Policies that bully, that keep people out, keep them other-ed. Policies that exclude people because of their gender or their sexual orientation. You there, gays, you are not entitled to the same rights as the straights because of who you sleep with, who you love. Now hand over your lunch money or we'll stuff you in the toilet stall again. And you women, you are not entitled to make decisions about your own body because it is lacking a penis, thereby lacking the good sense to make a sound decision about what goes on where one should be. Shut up, whores, or we'll give Paul Ryan your Facebook password again. You are less than... not as good as... other.

There are anti-bullying campaigns at every turn in tween culture today. The Disney kids are on board:

We need these kids with their folded arms and serious looks in Hutchinson, Kansas, in a city commission meeting, where LGBT rights advocates were recently asked by a city councilman to sit down with him and "show me where Scripture supports your lifestyle." This was in response to their request to be added to the city's anti-discrimination ordinance.  The gay rights advocates really should have taken note of the sign at the city gate that said Welcome to Medieval Europe! City ordinances should be reflective of Scripture? (What do the Scriptures say about commercial zoning or handicap parking?) The Disney kids could launch into a well choreographed song and dance routine about how bullying is not cool. Someone would rap something, probably. Usually on Disney they have the whitest kid do the rappy part, so no one can accuse them of racial profiling. Anyway, it would be awesome. The rappy part would be about how the bullied kids are stronger than the bully if they stick together, and then they'd help pick up the backpack and petitions that the bully councilman had thrown down and stepped on, and they'd all link arms and together they'd back the bully down the aisle of the auditorium until he turned and ran away.

I wonder how many parents are fully supportive of the anti-bullying campaigns in their kids' schools, yet turn a blind eye to bullying at the city and state level. What are we showing them if we redefine the notion of ostracism to justify a religious belief? Is gender or sexual orientation a good enough reason to exclude someone from protective legislation, to prohibit their civil rights, to deny them the same access to what we've decided is fair for the rest of us?

What is the difference between this:

...and this:


Okay, first, someone please point these children to a large pile of dirt to play in, because they do not seem to be having any fun here.  But before they go, take a quick look at their faces.  Someone has asked them to hold signs (sideways signs?) that promote bully legislation.  This day totally sucked for them.  They'll go to school and all the posters on the wall will say (besides being more boring than church with your zealot mom) those signs are not good.  And the school posters will have ponies and bears and talking candy corns and the Disney kids on them.  The posters win out over these boring, monochromatic, scratch paper hack jobs.  And if they're lucky, when they grow up they'll respond to bullying with half as much grace as John Franklin Stephens' beautiful crane kick to Ann Coulter's teeth in his response to her use of the word retard as an insult. "I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have."

Whether or not the bully backs down right away (Ms. Coulter has yet to apologize), the power that is born out of a gracious rebuttal to bullying is undeniable.  It wasn't long ago that developmentally disabled and special needs groups lacked advocacy at a public level, when people like the eloquent Mr. Stephens would have been institutionalized and denied access to an education.  Today, he has millions of supporters speaking out against Ms. Coulter's bullying words in his defense (not that he needs us, he did just fine).  

I am a mother first, above every other hat that I wear in my life.  I am also a voter.  You can bet that not only will a bully never secure my vote, I will tirelessly advocate for my children and educate them about fairness, about the rights of all citizens... all citizens! ...and teach them to stand for themselves and for others who need their support in the school hall and at the poll.  

Wax on, wax off, kiddo-sans!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Paper Route

When I was a kid, I inherited my brother’s newspaper route when he got sick of doing it.  Every day after school, there would be a bundle of flat evening papers to roll up, rubber-band, and stuff into the canvas carrier pouch that was nearly as big as I was.  Then I’d walk the neighborhood, tossing papers onto my customers’ porches or stuffing them into the mailboxes of the student apartment complexes on my route.  I had to deliver Mrs. Crevat’s paper to her door directly, hand it straight to her every day, and politely refuse the invitation to come in for a snack.  If I didn’t follow this exact procedure, when I got home there would be a call that she didn’t get her paper, or that I’d thrown it up onto the roof or something.  I was very important in my Toughskin jeans and my fastest Zips sneakers.  I had a job.  And my job was to bring people the news. On Sunday mornings, the papers came to our door when it was still dark outside, and they were thick with comics and advertisements and much harder to roll up and carry.  In my memory, it is always raining on those dark Sunday mornings.  A frozen, sleety rain that stung my face as I tossed the papers in their slippery plastic weather-proof sleeves.  Sometimes my mom drove me if the weather was really bad.

In those days, paper carriers collected checks or cash for the month’s delivery service, then passed those on to the newspaper we worked for.  There were usually tips included in the checks.  I see now in my own children that the amount of the tip is not important.  Sometimes my ten year old comes and helps me polish silverware and reset tables at the end of my lunch shift at the restaurant.  Sometimes a customer sees her working hard and gives her a little tip. She’s always so grateful for the gesture.  It’s not the money.  It’s the gratification of being rewarded at all for the effort that makes her happy.

I read this morning that Newsweek is going to stop the presses next year.  They’re going all digital.  Sad news for lovers of print publications, like myself.  I love the feeling of a glossy magazine in my hands.  I like newspapers.  I like the way they smell, the smudges on my fingertips, the bulky inconvenience of them.  I see the news a little more like literature when I can feel the weight of the human effort in it, can hold it in my hands.  And they remind me of childhood.  My first job!  My first experience with the gratification that comes with being tipped.  But I get it, why it has to change.  And I’m rolling with it.  I know it seems like a lot to ask someone to sit down and read an article, in print or even pixels.  It’s a lot to ask you to read this blog.  Apologies accompany a link to an article of two pages.  Sorry, I know this is long, but it’s a really good read...   We’re busy.  We don’t want to commit to ten minutes of reading and processing information, thinking critically about the words on the page in front of us, conjuring our own images to compliment them... why would we, when we could wait for the meme?

Oh, the meme.  A new word!!  Less than fifty years old.  I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it because you only ever see it, you don’t actually hear people say it.  Is it meem?  Or may-may, like a fancy french pronunciation?  Okay, no, it’s meem.  It’s an abbreviation of the word mimeme, with roots in ancient Greek meaning something imitated...or mimicked.  It was first used in 1976 by an evolutionary biologist named Richard Dawkins (not to be confused with Richard Dawson, the sloppy tongue kisser from the Family Feud of the same era) and he used it in a discussion involving how cultures transmit ideas and information through imitation.  The spread of ideas through mimicry, like how to build a keystone arch or the phrase Ermagherd.  Things that stick, even if only for a while (like Richard Dawson's spit on Aunt Rita's face) and how those play into the evolution of technology, of language, of culture.  Like dna replication of thoughts and ideas.  

In social media, the meme is a quick way to spread an idea.  Much faster than asking people to read something bulky and cumbersome like an article or some lady’s blog.  A meme can pass through the collective consciousness of an entire generation in hours.  No more waiting not-so-patiently with your morning coffee while you listen for the thud of your newspaper hitting the porch.  

The problem with the meme is that the idea behind it must already exist in the social consciousness for it to have any relevance at all.  If people aren’t already talking about it, it doesn’t mean anything.  Binders of Women, for example...  within hours of Mitt Romney using the phrase Binders of Women during this week’s presidential debate, the internet was teeming with memes.  Hilarious ones, at that.  

This one was my favorite.  RIP Johnny Castle!
I was entertained by the notion of binders of women, but there was another sound bite from the debate that was ringing in my ears, one in which the candidate described his policy on immigration, on children who are brought illegally to this country, and how they might earn their citizenship when they come of age through service in the military.  What’s that?  I thought.  Conscription?  Indentured servitude?  That can’t be right.  That can’t be what he meant.  I went to Mitt Romney’s website to see for myself.  Oh.  That is what he meant.  “Mitt Romney believes that young illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children should have the chance to become permanent residents, and eventually citizens, by serving honorably in the United States military.”

My mind raced to wrap itself around this idea.  What does that even mean?  What are we talking about here?  I’m not saying anything derogatory or in defiance of the military, per se, I’m only saying that using residency as a threat, forcing someone who is 18 years old (still a child in his mother’s eyes, I assure you) to either serve or face deportation from the only country he’s ever called home, rings of enslavement to me.  By threatening deportation to a country he can’t even recall, by threatening his stability, security and ambition, the government would have the power to ask anything of these children, and could compensate them any way they see fit.  They wouldn’t have the same rights or recourse as true citizens who serve in our military.  Don’t like it?  Get the fuck out.  Would we be counting on people to do the right thing, not to take advantage of the vulnerability of such non-citizens who want to make this their home?  

This idea is nothing new.  Slave armies have been operative (and successful) for thousands of years.  The premier dynasties of the Muslim world nearly all depended on slaves in their military, from the Umayyads in the 7th century all the way up through the Ottoman Empire.  In recent years in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Uganda, children have been conscripted as soon as they’re big enough to hold a gun.  By the time they’re soldiers, they forget they’re slaves.  I guess I have to give Mitt Romney credit for planning to wait until they’re 18 to hold them captive.   He’s not taking all his cues from Joseph Kony.  But the premise of forcing someone to pick up a gun and fight for the right to simply exist within the borders of a country is inhuman at best.  At its worst, it could be monstrous.  

Listen, I’m not trying to convince anyone to vote any certain way.  Use your voice.  Vote your conscience.  I’m just asking you to think about this specific policy submission, because I can’t come up with a may-may that presents the issue clearly... because no one grabbed onto that sound bite.  It just slipped through, drowned out by Binders of Women - those loud mouth bitches.
I tried...

...but no one gets it because no one is already talking about it.  Also, there seems to be no way to make it funny.  I can’t make it funny, because it’s not fucking funny. It won't race through the interwebs or become part of our collective social dna.

So instead I'm doing this. I had to take the long way... roll up this thing to think about, and drop it on your doorstep. You don't even have to tip me!

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Girl I Pretend I Wasn't

A girl is walking in the dark.  Not totally dark, but that sort of dark that happens right before it becomes totally dark.  That is to say, it is not the middle of the night, but late in the evening when the sun has been gone for an hour or so, but it is early spring before the rolling forward of the clock so the night feels later than it is.  She has just finished work.  She is making her way to her friend’s house.  She is lost in a thought, maybe contemplating the spices woven in the scents of the dinners wafting from inside the houses she passes.  Maybe thinking of her friend’s funny little blue Datsun, wondering if it will come put-put-putting around the corner to meet her, as it sometimes does.  A car passes.  It passes again.  She notices as it drives by that the muffler is loose, and it makes too much noise for a car its size.  It has four doors.  

She hears the car behind her for the third time.  She hears the doors squeak open.  She hears loud footfall, like horses in a parade, she thinks.  Her vision fails a moment as a pain shoots from the top of her head down through her neck and spine.  Wha...?   It doesn’t compute.  It doesn’t make sense why she has lost her footing, but someone, or two someones? helps her up and then puts her into a car.  There is rust on the floorboard in the space between the front and back seats where she is confined, and she can see the road underneath her through the hole it has corroded through the metal.  

She feels something warm on her face and thinks that it must be blood.  She can’t move her hands to check because they are being held behind her and she is being pushed into the floor by something... maybe a foot? that all she can see is the road racing underneath her and the muffler must be just under and behind her because she can only hear the insanely loud rattle right next to her head and some faint voices.  And someone is laughing.  She can’t understand the voices.  She fights to lift her head, to untangle her arms from behind her.  It is the first time it occurs to her to fight.  Something is not right.  It is time to fight.

She fights.  

Her eyes weld shut with fury and fear and she fights blindly in the car.  When it stops and she is pushed out onto cold concrete, she fights.  When her jeans are pulled away and her two legs are held by two different men, she fights.  When the first man angrily pushes inside her and she feels herself being ripped apart, she fights.  He is angry.  She is angrier.  Her anger is exhausting. Then she is dissolving into the ground, she feels herself as a hole in the concrete.  A cigarette extinguished on her right shoulder re-ignites her rage.  She had been beginning to weaken then.  Fuck you.  She will not stop screaming.  She doesn’t know how long she has been screaming.  They want her to stop screaming.  She doesn’t.  Not for a long time, but she doesn’t know how long.  The meanest one of the four men, the one with hard, cruel eyes, has broken a bottle across her face.  Her left cheek sears when it splits open, then feels warm, then numb.  Her eyes close tightly against bits of glass but she doesn’t stop screaming.  Then another.  Another bottle maybe?  Her eyes are still closed.  Maybe this time a fist ...across her right cheek.  When he hits her in the mouth she bites her tongue.  My tongue... she stops screaming.  

Just like that.  

She stops fighting.  She lifts up and out of her body.  Her body, she surmises, is fucking useless anyway, to anyone except the four men occupying it.  Finding it useless to herself, she abandons it.  For hours.  For most of a year.

Hours later, she’ll go to the hospital, where she’ll learn that there is another hospital 20 miles away for victims of rape, but not that one.  They’ll arrange for transportation, they say.  She wants a shower.  She doesn’t want anything more in the world than a shower.  She wants a shower more than she wants justice for herself.  More than she wants revenge, more than she wants anything.  Intake processes and swabs and samples and dry questions from strangers about what she was doing and where she was going won’t get her clean.  Not nearly quickly enough.  She doesn’t care for justice anyway.  When she bit her tongue, she stopped fighting and checked herself into a self-induced mental and emotional coma.  She simply left herself there.

She is sixteen.

A year later, she won’t be able to remember where she went or for how long.  Vague details of her daily life are mostly blurred by her refusal to become human again: a job at a gas station selling lottery tickets and scheduling oil changes, a red polyester shirt with white snaps, a boyfriend who collected unemployment and went out late every night.  Sometimes he brought things home to her, like new boots or cans of biscuits.  She didn’t feel traumatized.  She didn’t feel like a victim.  Those traits are human.  She wasn’t.  She was simply a hole in the concrete.

So here is the question: was I raped?  Or was I only raped when I was fighting?  When I stopped screaming, stopped trying to kick anyone in the teeth... did I consent?  When I walked out of the automatic doors of the first hospital and went directly to a shower to wash away all the evidence, all the sticky shit under the filthy jeans I had to dig out from the dumpster they’d been thrown into, instead of accepting the ambulance ride to the other hospital for the “rape kit” ...Christ! like it’s a box of handy tools you tuck under the passenger seat of your car before a long trip? Honey, don’t forget to pack the rape kit... did I undo the crime?  

I emerged from that self-induced year-long coma one day, walked to the beach, paddled out past the break, bobbed in the water and tasted life for the first time, maybe ever.  It’s salty.  Life is salty, and it tickles your nose and dries up your sinuses and makes little bits of stuff stick to your skin, like sand and seaweed and shiny, golden flecks of pyrite.  And I still didn’t feel like a victim.  I felt human, though.  Entirely.  And inexplicably happy.  

I don’t eat canned biscuits anymore.  

That was a long time ago.  I’ve never written about it, but whenever anyone asks me why I’m so happy (though I rarely say why) I always remember why.  I’m happy not to be a hole in the concrete.  I’m happy that I can taste the salt.  When I think of that time, it’s exactly as I wrote it.  I can see it very clearly, but it’s someone else’s life.  Whatever tethered me to that girl has been severed and I can only empathize wholly and greatly with her.  You know someone like her, I guarantee you do.  And it’s all over the news these days, girls like her.  Victims of whatever the current lawmakers define as legitimate rape.  I listened to the vice-presidential debate about morality and policy and pro-choice and pro-life and I listened to a lawmaker, a congressman, state that there should be an exception for infringing on women’s reproductive rights in instances of incest and rape.  Let me make sure I’ve got this straight: the only time a woman should have complete access to reproductive health care (Plan B, abortion services, etc.) is if she is the victim of incest or legitimate rape? Then I wondered: what constitutes a good old fashioned legitimate rape these days, in 2012, anyway?  Let’s talk about legitimate rape, and the danger for women that there is even such a phrase in our modern vernacular.  

Last week, October 2, 2012, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to overturn the conviction of rapist Richard Fourtin, Jr., 28, citing that the 26 year old woman he assaulted in 2005 didn’t do enough to negate the advances of her attacker.  The victim, who has cerebral palsy, cannot speak and by most accounts can only move one finger.  But, ruled the Supreme Court of Connecticut, she could have bitten, kicked or screamed if she’d wanted to resist.  The trouble with this case is that the prosecution initially fucked the whole thing up by charging Fourtin with raping someone who was unconscious.  They stupidly equated her inability to communicate with unconsciousness.  She was conscious during the attack, but did not communicate her disapproval of his advances by kicking, biting or screaming.  It is of note that the victim’s testimony reportedly took four painstaking days, as the prosecution and defense asked her yes or no questions which she answered by pointing to the words Yes and No on a tray in front of her index finger.  She must not have had that card handy when Fourtin was raping her.

"We are not persuaded that the victim was either unconscious or so uncommunicative that she was physically incapable of manifesting to the defendant her lack of consent to sexual intercourse at the time of the alleged sexual assault," the high court ruled Monday.

Read more from the Connecticut Post if you like:

Is failing to properly say no the same thing as yes?  What is a proper no?  I can’t recall that I ever said no.  I have full verbal capacity.  I don’t communicate by tapping my finger.  I don’t think I ever said no, not even in a whisper.  Was that the same thing as: yes?  

Here is the slippery slope we’re on with regard to rape and reproductive rights (my guts scream RIGHTS! RIGHTS! RIGHTS! every time I use that phrase): who decides if you have been raped and whether you are granted access to medical services to terminate a resulting unwanted pregnancy?  How long does this process take?  If a woman walks out of the hospital that just refused to treat her and instead hides in the shower stall for three hours... was she un-raped?  If she is mute and can’t report it, was the assault imaginary?  If she is young, scared, angry, wants to ignore it, thinks she did something wrong... what fucking ever... who is writing the laws that determine whether or not she will be forced to carry a pregnancy that she does not want and did not ask for?  Every victim of assault has to find his or her own taste for salt again.  That’s on us.  It’s hard enough to get out past the breakers without some arbitrary policy in place about whether you have a legitimate claim to be there or not. The people having this conversation at the legislative level have no dog in this fight.

I got lucky today.  When I started to write this I didn’t know where it was going.  I figured it’d be abandoned as useless drivel because I’d have no way to wrap it up.  About the time I wrote the words “simply a hole in the concrete” it was time to close the computer and go have lunch with my 10 year old daughter at school.  On the way there, I was pretty sure I was going to throw up.  But I sat with her and her friends and we ate pumpkin bagels with peanut butter, washed down with cartons of cold milk, and I listened to those girls jab-jab-jabbering on about this and that and I felt indebted to her, to them, to tell this story for them. She’s not all that distant, really, that girl I pretend I wasn’t.

A note from my husband: don't feel sorry for this girl. This could be anyone's story. It just happens to be mine.

Monday, October 1, 2012

On Confession and Earnest Amends

The most earnest and heartfelt apology I have ever made was to a child younger than two. I guess I was lucky that he was a little ahead of the curve in terms of verbal development and spiritual understanding, enough so that he understood exactly what I was saying to him when I told him that I was wrong, that I was sorry, when I promised that I would never, ever, ever hurt him again.  

In brief: there was a toddler watching Blues Clues, there was a sleeping new baby behind a bedroom door, there was a new catering service with an order for lots of tiny food, a kitchen full of sacks of flour and sharp knives, a baby gate to keep the toddler from the sacks of flour and sharp knives... there was a child who needed attention, more than Steve and Blue were giving him, there was a mother putting him off while she piped potato puree into miniature potato skins, there was a wail of protest from the toddler followed by a wail from the no-longer sleeping baby behind the bedroom door. There was a loss of patience, a voice raised, and a 20 pound toddler being pushed into his room by his much, much larger mother, where he tripped over a truck and fell to the floor with a thud in a heap of desperate sobs.

Stop the reel.  Freeze the frame on that moment and look at the snapshot of that scene. There is a small child who has been pushed to the floor by the person he trusts most in the world. I am not the person who puts Goldfish crackers on his tomato soup, not the person who holds his hand in the parking lot, not the person who patiently follows him while he gathers colorful fall leaves on a walk, not his nurturer, protector or guide. I am the monster from under his bed, filling the door frame with my ugly, snarling face and shoving his tiny, powerless body across the Little Tykes littered floor while he cries. I am the worst mother... the worst person... in the world.  Unfreeze.

More than ten years later, as I write this, my body is flushed, my heart is beating faster, my guts are twisting, and I am overcome with the urge to go to him, as I did then. To sink to the floor beside him and take him in my arms. What have I done what have I done what have I done...?

The fact that he was not hurt makes no difference to me. Love is not a matter of no harm, no foul. The apology I made to him that day where we sat on the floor surrounded by trucks and trains was only the beginning of a lifetime of amends between us. In that moment, I felt the full weight of my humanness, of my imperfection, of my remorse. I remember holding him on my lap with one arm and tracing the fingers of my other hand along the dashed lines that ran down the center of the roads woven into the brightly colored play rug on his floor while we sat a long time in silence after I’d explained to him that it was never okay, never-never-ever okay, for anyone, ever, anywhere, to lay an angry hand on him. I promised that my hands and my words would be gentle.

As much as I would love to bury that moment and never relive it, it is one of the major fossils in the stratigraphic record of my parenthood. Of my personhood. As great as my remorse is when I look at that snapshot, I see that what I chose to do with that remorse has made all the difference in how I parent my kids and who they’re turning out to be.  I am a champion of accountability.  If I can’t be perfect for them, the least I can be is accountable to them.  I fuck up a lot, so I have lots of chances to say sorrys, and make a lot of amends, and tell them exactly how I wish I had handled a situation when I come up short.  

Last year, feeling that he was old enough for me to confess my abuse, I told him the whole story. I watched his face while he listened to me recount that afternoon, details that are still vivid and sharply painful for me. I looked for any sign of recall, any tick or twitch or signal that I have, indeed, scarred his psyche and ruined his chance at a normal life.  His face was kind, but sort of unimpressed.

Then he shrugged and put his hand on my shoulder and said “Mom, that is not the worst thing you’ve ever done. Can I make a sandwich?”  Oh. Whew. Wait... What??

That story is so hard to tell. Sorry, I’m sure it’s almost as hard to read. How about a pick-me-up?

Fast forward to tonight and one of my greatest, most triumphant hours of motherhood. As dinner was winding down, I was informed of a potluck tomorrow at school. Okay, we can make banana muffins. But I promised the 4 year old we’d make strawberry shortcakes earlier today because I’m pregnant and I wanted one. It was not quite 7:00. There was still homework to check and a bath for the little one and dinner dishes to wash and shortcakes and muffins to bake.

Dishes done, baby in the tub, shortcakes went into the oven while the 12 year old mixed the muffin ingredients I’d pre-measured for him. Shortcakes came out, muffins went in, naked but clean baby stood on a chair helping cut berries and make the whipped cream while algebraic equations were solved at the kitchen table. The house smelled lovely. Everyone had a shortcake. Everyone loved the shortcake. “Can I have another?” asked the 10 year old? No. “Another biscuit?” No. “Another berry?” No. I’m glad you loved them, now please find something helpful to do. 

The algebra is getting more complex. “How do I solve for the integer in prime factorization with powers?” And from the bathroom “Mommmmm, I poooooooped.” That’s the naked four year old, who still needs guidance finishing up in there sometimes. I turned around from the sink - where I stood washing the second round of dishes for the evening - to cold bust the 10 year old stealing sugary macerated strawberries from the bowl on the counter.  Oh No You Did NOT just take the berries I said you couldn’t have while my back was turned at the sink washing the very dish from which you ate the lovely dessert I gifted you with tonight.

True to the promise I made her brother over ten years ago, my voice was patient and gentle. “Do you think if I don’t see you, it doesn’t count?  It’s not about the strawberry. It’s about being accountable. I’m very disappointed, young lady. I was going to let you take those in your lunch tomorrow.” Ohhh, mama guilt, right to the gut.

Later, after I tucked them all in, I found this on the kitchen table:

An earnest apology, complete with heart sticker and two homemade barrettes

Forgiven. Of course.

If I could retract all my mistakes, all my transgressions, all my shortcomings, or if I could hide them from my kids and only show them a perfectly unflawed face, how could I ever show them how truly remarkable we can be in the face of imperfection? And how would they learn forgiveness? That's where all the grace happens, all the growth, when your guts are flipping and your cheeks are hot and you've got snot all over you and blotches around your eyes... that's where all the magic happens.

There is no love on Earth more white hot pure than a mama’s love, and even that gets spotty and messy sometimes. It's supposed to. That's how we make our little humans comfortable being human.