Monday, May 28, 2012

The Dogcatcher and the Accidental Activist

“All this chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter ‘bout schmatta, schmatta, schmatta...” -Jagger/Richards

This one is tough to start.  Not that I have writer’s block, I think I know what I was going to write about.  It’s just that getting started seems a little... I don’t know... uncomfortable.  I can’t walk into a fresh topic without acknowledging the events that transpired from the last.  My last post garnered attention at a level I never expected.  By today’s count, more than 22,000 people have read it.  Sometime this week, it’ll be syndicated on a web magazine with a significant viewership.  Thousands more, I suppose, will read it.  I only know about 15 people, and a couple of them don’t read, so that’s a lot of strangers.  There are more than three times as many subscribers to this blog right now than there were a week ago.  Welcome, new friends!  Some of you might be disappointed to learn that I am only an occasional dissenter, an accidental activist.  I hope most of you took a look through previous posts so you know how boring this really is.  Usually I write about the very mundane happenings of my everyday, which probably look a lot like the mundane happenings of your everyday, if your everyday is just a regular life with your genius-artist husband, three kids, some bitchy chickens, a well-meaning dog who can’t or won’t stop peeing everywhere and a cat who complains loudly and incessantly, which might be related to the dog pee situation.  Oh, and a bird who is somehow still clinging to life despite the rest of us constantly overlooking him, all in a small house on the periphery of a small community full of other creative people and the people who love them, their chickens, dogs with and without overactive bladders and whiny cats.  I don’t know how many of their kids have parakeets to ignore.  Nobody talks about their parakeets, so probably most of them do.  

Contrary to some of the feedback I received from my last essay, I am not angry.  Well, I am intermittently angry, but never for the sake of being so.  It just happens that I have a talent for observation and analysis, and a creative imagination for conjuring up possible solutions to the situation that’s pissing me off.  Also, I’m not afraid of swearing.  I write pretty much the same way I speak, and maybe I would have changed some words if I’d known I was going to be speaking to strangers.  Or maybe not.  It’s too late now.  I’ve seriously hacked off the religious right, offended atheists, slammed sex-workers, and I’m guessing there is a bottom feeder out there (catfish?  ass eater?) who is too pissed for words that I compared him to the Koch brothers.  Or maybe he was afraid my dad would yell at him.  But it got people talking and thinking and I hope... it got a few of them to reconsider their spending habits.  I wrote that post two hours after returning home from Planned Parenthood.  It was fresh, it was raw, and it was very honest.  By far the most insulting comment I received doubted the authenticity of the event.  That must have been the angry bottom feeder.  His name is Bill.  I wonder if Bill is a semi-literate catfish or just a poop eater.

Is there a way for me to question policy without personally insulting people who don’t agree with me and subsequently provoking them to insult me back?  I slammed three people in my last article: Sam Brownback, David Koch and Charles Koch.  No regrets there, and no apologies.  I’d spit in their soup, given the opportunity.  Then I guess I’d probably feel bad about my unprofessionalism and call myself a sissy for doing something so passive aggressive and just pour it in their laps when I got to the table.  But what about the offended readers, the ones who took my words as a personal affront?  I took issue with corporate and legislative policy and ended up offending a whole slew of folks, some of whom are on the same side I am, like the atheists who said “Hey!  Don’t use godless as an insult!”  Impossible for them to know that I was raised by an atheist, though one with a sense of humor.   See?  I just offended about 300 not-funny atheists, right there.  See how easy that is?  Do I, from this point forward, consider that my words might potentially be run through 20,000 different filters and strike 20,000 different nerves by the time they’re flushed through?  I have to tell you, I am an empathetic person, but I don’t think I have that in me.  It sounds exhausting.  Besides, the primary purpose of this blog is so that my kids will have a record of my thoughts someday.  Seriously, wouldn’t you love to have something like this that your parents wrote when they were young and beautiful?  When you were too self-involved and tunnel-minded to even notice that they might have an opinion or a thought on anything outside of what kind of birthday cake to make you?  I know I would.  Theirs are the only filters I consider when I write.  The rest of you can fend for yourselves.  

Okay.  Now I can move forward.

Here’s something easy to digest.  We could all use a break this week:

The dogcatcher has it in for my small-bladdered friend.  As I mentioned, we live on the periphery of the neighborhood.  We’re pretty isolated.  The dog, who despite his urinary habits inside is fairly well behaved outside, hangs around the house, mostly staying pretty close unless he is on a quick walk-about down to the river or chasing a squirrel around the corner.  He always comes right back and, to my knowledge, has never made too big a nuisance of himself to anyone but said squirrels.  One day when my son and I were sitting on the front porch with popsicles, the city dogcatcher paid a visit.  

“Is this your animal?” she motioned brusquely to the dog who was licking up grape popsicle drips near my feet.

“Uh...this dog?  He looks a lot like my dog, but my dog only likes cherry, so I’m not sure.”  My son looked concerned.  He’s still getting used to my sense of humor.  The dogcatcher wasn’t amused, either.  Sometimes I’m not that funny.  “Yeah, he’s ours.”

“I need to see your license,” said the dogcatcher.  Suddenly, the situation felt very serious.  I retrieved my license from inside the house and was promptly presented with an $80 ticket for having the dog off leash in an unfenced yard.  Sitting next to me, licking popsicle drips off the ground, but unleashed.  Then she told me if she sees the chickens “off property” she’d ticket me for that, too.  “Fair enough,” I said, “they’re pretty aggressive... but they don’t need to be on leashes in the yard, right?”  She blinked rapidly with irritation.  I decoded the Morse signal of her fluttering lids: lady, I have a badge, don’t fuck with me.  “I can ticket you for that cat, too, if he goes out of your yard.”  I told her I’d speak with the chickens and the cat about their legal boundaries.

$80 seemed like a pretty stiff penalty for letting a dog clean up popsicle drips without a leash.  But we paid it and for a while we put to use the tie out in front of the house.  Habits die hard, don’t they?  It wasn’t long before we were back to just letting the dog be a dog and sniff around the yard and chase the squirrels and trot down to the river and back.  Then one morning the dog catcher came and snatched him out of the yard.  Yes, I said snatched!   A construction worker next door reported the whole event to us.  While we were on the back porch drinking coffee, she lured him into her van from right out in front of the house.  Now, I’m not saying we didn’t break the law by letting him roam in the yard.  We most certainly did.  The dog, though a pain in the ass, is not a menacing, vicious animal.  He’s a sniffer and a barker and he pees uncontrollably, but he’s never hurt anyone.  He’s never even caught a squirrel.  Somehow I hoped that made us exempt from the rules, which I assume were created to protect the public.  It doesn’t.  Not only are we not exempt, but my smart ass attitude and my husband’s muttering of “miserable bitch” under his breath when he went to collect the dog and the accompanying $160.00 ticket that followed the dog’s confiscation have made us prime targets of the dogcatcher’s attention.  Lawrence’s Most Wanted.  She drives by slowly, and often, looking for another chance to bust us.  I’m still hopeful for the moment that I’m walking him on his leash (yeah, I do that) when she cruises past.  I wonder how many fingers I’ll use to wave.

At nearly 40 years old and an example to three small children, maybe it would be best for me to put behind the “question authority, question everything” mentality of my youth.  It would keep me out of trouble with the dogcatcher and some sensitive atheists and Bill the Poop Eating Catfish. That would be a lot easier to do if the authorities would behave more rationally.  Come to think of it, the increased vigilance on the part of the dogcatcher corresponds eerily with the first piece I ever wrote in defiance of the Kansas House of Reps and Governor Brownback.  Maybe Animal Control was dispatched directly from the state gubernatorial office in hopes of distracting me and costing me so much in fines that I won’t be able to afford my cable/internet service and my virtual megaphone of opposition will be forever silenced: “Just listen to this liberal, foul mouthed, feminist crap!  I’ll bet this lady has a dog off its leash in her yard right now!  I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”  Well, guess what, Brownback and Co.?  I’m hip to your game.  Just to piss you off, I’m going to keep my dog on a leash.  To boot, I’m going to follow every local ordinance to a tee.  No more jaywalking on empty streets.  No more crossing the train tracks anywhere but designated intersections.  No more chickens loose and acting aggressively.  They are now securely penned and acting aggressively amongst themselves.

As for my tendency to question authority, and to teach my kids to do the same, I can make no bargains there.  I realized (halfway into page two, naturally) that the poor dogcatcher is the unfortunate recipient of much displaced frustration that is more accurately directed at those who hold real power in my state and are using it to enact twisted policies that mirror their deranged morals.  Their agenda is pretty transparent to me and to many others like me who are thoughtful, observant and analytical.  It’s a tricky balance, demonstrating to your kids how to be respectful of people while questioning policy.  I don’t want them to swallow whatever I sell them.  Put in terms my 11 year old son can understand: what would have happened to Luke Skywalker if he’d just done what his dad told him to?  Observe.  Think.  Ask questions.  Consider the answers. Then ask more questions.  Cut off your dad’s mechanical hand if he wants you to be evil with him and you don’t want to be evil.  But be respectful.  I’ll do my best to do the same here, now that there are more of you and some of us don’t know each other well.  I can’t promise that I won’t offend you at some point, but I can promise that I will never spill hot soup in your lap on purpose.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

KS v. V-J-J

The story of how, at 38 years old, I found myself without health insurance, sitting in the lobby of my local Planned Parenthood is not a sad story.  I’m not one of those victims of the economy that might be profiled in a story in Newsweek.  I was not laid off.  My insurance benefits weren’t cut off by the man.  Quite to the contrary, I willingly and voluntarily gave up a job with health benefits in order to avail myself more fully to the family I am raising.  I take my job as a mother seriously.  Hot breakfasts are important to me.  I like, no... love, making snacks and helping with math homework after school.  The library is my favorite place to explore with them.  I need to keep my schedule pretty open for that stuff. Besides, my kids and I are still getting to know each other, and those little turds keep changing every damn thing about themselves every time I turn around, so there is always lots more to learn.  Time with them feels short and precious, and I trust the little old ladies in the grocery store who look at us longingly and caution me that it will be over before I know it.  I always nod politely, but what I want to say is: I know it, lady, and please don’t think for one second that I am unaware of the speed at which I’m traveling, but I don’t see a hand brake around here, so I’m just going to stay in this wagon with them and careen recklessly through this mine shaft while life bucks them out one at a time until I’m the only one in it.  

Rather than commit myself to a 40+ hour workweek that would provide us with benefits, I waitress.  Short of being one of those really expensive escorts, it’s the best way I can find to earn the most dollars in the fewest hours.  Also it keeps my legs strong and curvy.  Also I like doing it a lot, lot, lot.  And those high paid escorts probably have to shave, like, every day, and talk about boring things with boring people, and then have sex with them.  I like talking about boring things with my not-boring husband, and then I might not even want to have sex with him, and he can’t ask for a refund.   Besides, those girls always end up dead on Dateline.  

So here’s what we know so far: I love being a mama, I work for cash, I do not have health insurance, I am not a call girl.  

Let’s go back to the top of the page, when I referenced my “local” Planned Parenthood.  By “local” I really mean “closest,” which is about 50 miles from here.  The actual “local” office closed in 2010.  If I were without transportation, I could maybe take the student shuttle bus that runs from Lawrence to Overland Park’s Johnson County Community College, then walk the remaining five miles to the Planned Parenthood clinic.  But my appointment was on Saturday, and the bus only runs Monday through Friday, so I would need to enlist the help of a friend with a car, or pony up $75 for a cab ride.  Lucky for me, I’ve got a sweet minivan with one of those rad honor roll bumper stickers.  I only mention it because, as I said, if I didn’t have transportation, arranging for it might be another obstacle between myself and affordable health care.  Another benefit to having a car when you go to Planned Parenthood, at least in Kansas, is that you can drive past the protesters on your way to the back parking lot, rather than having to walk past them on your way in.  They aren’t allowed on the property itself, so they keep to the sidewalk out front.  If you were on foot, you’d have to walk straight through them, even if you’re just on your way in for a pap smear.  That’s right.  In Kansas, if you are too poor to afford health insurance and are relegated to the Planned Parenthood for your lady bits’ annual tune up, God hates you.  If you are also too poor to own a car, you are going to have to physically brush shoulders with someone holding a sign that says so.  

Which brings me to the front door.  I try to open it and, finding it locked, confusedly look around for another door.  Then a few seconds later, a very large man (about 6’5”, 450 pounds) in a very large uniform opens the tinted bulletproof glass door and asks what I want.  I give him my name, my identification.  I smile.  He doesn’t.  He wands me front and back with one of those airport TSA thingies and looks inside my purse, tells me to go put my phone in the car, wands me and searches my bag again once I’ve done so... everything but the invasive internal exam I’m there for in the first place.  They should just give this dude some swabs and hand sanitizer and half of us wouldn’t even have to go inside at all.  Then he nods me in.  That’s when it hits me: I am on the front lines of America’s War on Women’s Reproductive Rights. When I say war, I mean war, as evidenced by the bulletproof glass and ultra-tight security.  And the war is not restricted to family planning services, unless you also consider cancer screenings and hormone therapy for medical purposes family planning.  I guess keeping mothers and daughters and grandmothers alive falls under that category.  They still count as part of the family, for now.

Inside the waiting room, I survey my contemporaries.  Most sit alone, as I do.  There are all ages, all ethnicities. A few have partners with them.  There’s an Eastern Indian woman with brightly ornate, flowing clothes and a long, wavy, black ponytail streaked with grey.  A skinny teenage girl comes in with her dad.  He does all the talking while leaning closely into the sliding bulletproof glass window that surrounds the receptionist.  He speaks in a hushed voice.  The receptionists are friendly and efficient.  They wet their fingers intermittently on their tongues as they fly through the paperwork and count the cash payments of the uninsured patients they care for.  It occurs to me how brave they are, even with the bulletproof glass and enormous security guard, to do what they do, and so cheerfully.  They have polished nails and funky hairdos and genuine smiles.  I’m struck by the contrast between this place and the waiting rooms of the OB/GYNs who delivered my three kids, back when I had health insurance and went to the real doctor.  First, and most obviously, there was no bulletproof glass in those offices.  Those walls were pastel and floral, with wicker decor and photos of brand new sleeping babies dressed up like pumpkins and tomatoes.  Here, the walls are gun metal gray, with posters advocating a woman’s right to choose.  At the real doctor, there were no posters on the wall with facts about HIV transmission, there was no guard at the door.  But the warmth I experience from the women working at Planned Parenthood far surpasses any I received from the reception staff at the real doctor’s office.  These women have been completely stripped of any of the entitled, bored and fussy attitude that those women seemed to have.  Chances are, they never had it in the first place, that's why they're here. Or maybe it’s because they don’t have to deal with insurance paperwork all day long.  They have to deal with people.

The receptionist kindly informed me that “everyone had shown up for their appointments today” so I was going to have to wait a while past my scheduled appointment time.  I took that time, which ended up being more than an hour, to consider my situation.  First, I wondered why it was notable that everyone had shown up today?  Do they overbook appointments with the assumption that some patients will not be able to make it?  I came from 50 miles away.  Some women travel farther.  Some can’t get rides.  Some may be scheduled for appointments they change their minds about keeping.  I can tell, or think I can, the women who are there for abortion services.  A girl with long, matted black hair and a long black jacket pays at the window with wads of crumpled twenty dollar bills she extracts two or three at a time from her black jeans until she counts out $360.00.  I only noticed because it was 80 degrees outside.  The jacket caught my attention.  Her pained effort to straighten out and count all those bills while the receptionist looked on with patience is what held it.  And I thought to myself, whatever fight this girl is fighting, whatever led her here, it’s hers to fight.  Not her state representative’s.  Not her pastor’s.  Certainly not a congressional committee made up entirely of men and for fuck’s sake not Sam Brownback’s.  They will never sit here.  They will never have to make decisions for themselves and their families that lead them to this waiting room.  Ever.  There is no male equivalent to the Women’s Health Clinic.  This would be a good time to mention that no state has passed a bill saying that doctors and pharmacists don’t have to prescribe medication that assists with any issues that may happen in a man’s pants... no legislation that says “hey, it’s God’s will, slugger.  Guess you just don’t get another turn at bat.”

In the late sixties and seventies, America accepted that women’s reproductive rights were not a matter for government regulation.  As women became increasingly confident taking control of issues that affected their health and families, they were subsequently confident taking control of their educations, their careers, their spiritual growth.  That’s why they call it health and wellness.  The wellness part is the rest of your life, the part your healthy body allows you to do. Of course there were always right wing religious organizations and individuals who damned the movement to hell, but lately this movement is happening in my (and other) state house of representatives.  This effort to restrict the services available to women is a direct attack on our wellness.  Fact: political regimes throughout history have used sexual humiliation as a means of maintaining control over women, and continue to do so. Taking control of a woman's body through oppressive legislation is a form of sexual humiliation.

I’m not sure what they’re so afraid of.  It can't be money. We’ve never broken the cap of 16% of the top earners in any economic sector. Pick one: Hollywood, aerospace engineering, Wall Street.  16% ladies, that’s where we max out.  I can be cool with that, but let’s get something straight: I will fight until I’ve lost every one of my teeth in the skin of those fat fuckers, until I’ve lost all my fingernails digging out, to keep that percentage.  We will keep our 16%, and we will maintain the rights our mothers (and my own father) won for us.  And if you think that this passive, mindless, video-game-obsessed generation is going to sit by while you take away our ability to make decisions about our own bodies, that’s even better.  Because you won’t see us coming.  Maybe you forgot... we're women... we’re the spenders.  Some of us shop for shoes and some of us scour thrift stores for vintage dresses and some of us stay up late and watch QVC and some of us love ebay, but we are the spenders.  We know this democracy thing is rigged.  You guys think you have the game on lock down but we’ve got dollars and the know-how to spend them wisely.  

My money represents my hard work, my swollen feet, my aching hips, and my time away from my family. How I choose to spend it is spiritual currency. I will continue to work for cash and my money will go to Planned Parenthood.  I’ll walk if I have to, past the protesters, past the guard who protects the nice ladies who work there, to sit in the dingy waiting room and wait an extra hour.  It’s my money, and that's where I want to spend it. Hear this Koch brothers, you godless, bottom-feeding bastards who put the “$$” in Te$ P$rty, who bought all those elections in 2010 when the conservatives swept the house and senate and started to immediately dismantle the civil rights we thought were secure... I know what products you make, and I’d rather wipe my ass with my hand than shell out a single one of my hard-earned dollars for a roll of your toilet paper.  

I live in the heartland.  This is where the fight seems most futile.  Where my vote at the poll is a tiny blue pin head in a sea of red.  I can’t win at the poll.  There is a more creative solution.  Women all over the world have worked to topple regimes and dismantle policies more oppressive than these through tireless search for the back door into the battle.  When they can’t find a back door, they look for a basement window.  Any way to get in and make a change.  Sure, you’re wiley and persuasively flirtatious when that’s all that’s called for, but this situation might require a little more muscle.  Use what you have.  Use dollars when and where you can.  Find out where the money comes from, which corporations have been funneling money into the elections in your state. Then boycott those. I know, that sounds like a lot of work and research, but consider that women in Uganda are protesting similar policies topless in the street and facing arrest doing so. Our mothers and grandmothers marched and protested and fought hard for this shit. And they didn't have more than landline telephones to help them organize. And maybe college newspapers. Donate to Planned Parenthood, even a little helps.   Find out how you can help:

I sat in the waiting room of Planned Parenthood today because I thought it was the only health care I could afford.  I left in tears, knowing I can’t afford not to go back.  


Monday, May 14, 2012

This Limestone Life

I speak often about the tall grasses and long shadows on my beautiful Flint Hills prairie.  I maintain that this is a magical place, that the long horizon and nearly constant wind are a daily reminder of the rotation of the planet and of my place on it, though that wind is hell on a girl whose va-va-voom curves crave wrap-around dresses.   And who also likes to ride a bike.   And who occasionally rides a bike in a wrap-around dress.  I’ve been that girl more than once: left the house in my dress on my bike at a perfectly calm 8 am only to find myself a spectacle of comedy as I try (and fail) to ride home gracefully at 3 pm in 30 mile an hour winds, with one hand on the handlebars and one hand futilely trying to subdue my skirt.  Never trust morning in Kansas.  The timid Kansas morning is fucking with you, ladies.  Bring tights.  In any case, when I stand on the prairie and watch the shadows shrink with the rising sun, and listen to the wind blow up from Oklahoma, through the grass that tickles my bare legs (tick check, but worth it to be barefoot on the prairie), I stand in awe of the processes at work under my feet and over my head.

I spent some formative years in Southern California, and bounced around a couple other parts of the country after that to see what I could see.  Back and forth between colleges and the beach.  There was a time that I realized one place was pretty much as good as another if I could find work and a boy to fall in love with.  I was a moderately attractive girl, and an exceptional waitress, so it was easy enough to find either.  I never felt purposeless.  On the contrary, I was always very sure of what I was doing.  Right now my parents are rolling their eyes in agreement.  I had intermittent periods of intense focus, sometimes on a boy, sometimes on a college degree, what have you.  I think I was ambitious, but in a really ADHD way.  I was impassioned, but tersely so.  

I was raised to believe I could be anything I wanted.  That's what they told me, and they seemed so certain of it that I believed it myself.  I still do.  But every calling inevitably became a mutter that lost its volume and clarity.  I was also raised to believe that if you start down a road and find that it's not your own, you can just cut through the brush and go find a new road.  You might scratch your ankles on some prickly bushes, but that's no big deal.  So I just cruised around a while, looking for my special purpose.  Sure, any place is pretty much as good as another, and I could have been happy on the moon, provided I had a place to work and a man to make my stomach ache.  But this prairie is the womb for me.  I am of this place.  When I came back to Kansas to raise a family, I lost my sense of purpose altogether, quite fortunately.  It was the rocks that stripped me of my drive to conquer anything but the day in front of me.  

The Cottonwood Limestone Shelf was was formed during the Pennsylvanian epoch in North America.  During this time, a shallow, moderately turbulent ocean advanced and receded across the inner continent 14 times.  You can count that in the stratigraphy of the limestone.  Every time the ocean receded, it left all these tiny marine carcasses to calcify into rock on the ground.  You can see them, too.  Poor little buddies.  Life is hard in shallow, turbulent water.  You have to go with the flow.  What choice do you have, really?  The net result of 20 million years worth of oceanic activity, roughly 300 million years ago is a shelf of limestone... 7 feet tall.  7 feet.  That’s barely taller than my husband.  And what composes the rock is billions upon billions of teeny tiny little lives (and a few big ones, which are exciting to find) that settled on top of each other.  

I live in a house made of limestone.  I like to sit outside and study the fossils in the rock.  I’d be able to do it inside, too, but some asshole painted over the exposed stone with some kind of NASA grade plaster.  Dick move.  If I live to be a hundred and study them every day, I’ll still never memorize all the critters that make up the walls of my small house.  Lots of stuff around here is built from that limestone.  Most of the older buildings downtown, houses, fences.  In the 1800s, it was cheap, sturdy building material, though I’m guessing the horses hated hauling it.

That rock is significant to me for a couple of reasons. Okay, first, let’s get this out of the way: I’m a geology weenie. I mean... a super weenie. My youngest kid has a rock collection and has already learned to hide her finds from me. Not because she’s afraid I’ll take them away and keep them for myself (I said weenie, not monster), but because she doesn’t want the boring lecture that accompanies her proudly presenting her newest score. “Pretty!” she says. “Ohhhh, yes, that’s an extrusive volcanic rock called basalt, probably all the way from Oregon. May I see it?” “Pretty!” she insists, and shoves it deep into her pocket, then runs the other way while my voice trails off “...can you say igneous?”

But there’s something else.  Something that I like to think I’d notice even without the influence of my inner rock dork.  It’s the life in the rock.  The entire limestone shelf is made of life.  Teeny tiny life.  You can't miss it.  

When I say that I lost my sense of purpose in Kansas, it’s not as bad as it sounds.  It’s more like I see my life as billions of very small moments that settle as they pass to form something solid.  I can study the individual fossils of these moments, that’s interesting for a while.  There are some big ones that leave big impressions.  I think Oprah calls those “defining moments” or some shit.  That’s an expression I intrinsically hate, but I guess I get the concept.  Yes, there are those.  We all have those.  But as exciting as the big fossils are to find, they are a pretty slim percentage of the overall composition.  

I wake up every day and have thousands of tiny moments that settle onto the floor of my life.  When I absentmindedly stir the milk into my coffee, still stuck in the dream I just had; when I make eye contact with my children, smile as I flip pancakes onto their plates; when I stand in the driveway in my jammies with my coffee and watch them ride their bikes up the street toward school; on and on through the day.  The moments come, they churn around in the shallow, moderately turbulent waters of my forty to ninety year lifespan (to be determined), then they settle to the bottom.  I turn back toward my house, coffee cup in hand, and the house reminds me to be mindful of the way their backpacks hung from their shoulders and the way they waved back at me from halfway up the block.  The moment passes, sweetly, to become part of something concrete.  When I married my husband, I told him that forever was the sound of his watch hitting the nightstand table.  Modest, but solid.

For Mother’s Day this year, I gave my mom a carved gourd with some treasures inside: an arrowhead, a dime that the baby tossed in for reasons only known to her, and a piece of Kansas coral.  The coral is a symbol of my appreciation for our shared moments, the little ones, the big ones, that have hardened into a love so solid I feel as though I could hold it in my hands.

If, as my life passes, as the moments pass, I could choose how I’d like the fossil record to look, I think I’d prefer a landscape like this prairie.  Soft and breezy on the surface, with whispering grasses and sparse shade trees, but with a layer of soft rock just under the surface, only a bit taller than my husband, and made up of all the teeny tiny bits of life that have settled through the years.    

Monday, May 7, 2012

Notes from the Happily Ever After

My ex husband called me the other day, two days after what would have been our 14th wedding anniversary.  Our un-niversary.  He told me how grateful he is that we salvaged our friendship even through our divorce.  He didn’t want to call on the anniversary itself, he said, out of deference to my current husband, whom he admires and respects very much.  They have a funny relationship, those two.  My first husband is a super handy fixer guy from Southern California, part MacGyver, part Bob the Builder, part Mike Ness. (If you’re too young to know who MacGyver is, you’re probably too young to read my potty mouth blog.  If you’re too old to know who Mike Ness is, don’t sweat it, just think slicked back hair and tattoos.  Proceed.)  My current husband is an incredibly talented midwestern songwriter who fixes almost everything with either tape or those little white screw hooks... a creative tall, dark and handsome type with an easy, gentle manner.  What they have in common is a shared love of our kids and a commiseration on life with a woman who is what they have each independently described as “a lot.”  As in: she’s a lot.  I hope this commentary refers to my personality, rather than my hips.  Occasionally I catch one of the two rolling his eyes at the other, causing me to pause mid-sentence and marvel at how simultaneously awesome and fucked up that is.  

It hasn’t always been like this.

When my first husband and I split, it was because we had tried everything, and I mean everything, to stay together.  We were both drowning.  We were both miserable.  I’m not talking about circumstantial why do you always leave the cap off the toothpaste? kind of unhappiness.  We didn’t fight about money or control of the television remote.  He didn’t hate my cooking.  I didn’t hate any of his domestic habits.  No one was cheating.  I believe those are fixable issues.  What I found myself hating was the sound of him breathing or chewing food.  It’s notable that those are the very processes which sustain life, right?  I’m talking about a weight that pulled the whole family under.  I’m not sure who came up with the idea of staying together for the children (I know that what I’m about to say is controversial, but hang with me a minute and I’ll explain in a little more detail) but that would have been the worst parenting decision we could have made.  Kids are intuitive.  They don’t miss much, and they certainly pick up on the sorts of vibrations that accompany two miserable parents, even two really good miserable parents who are doing their best to hide the fact that they are drowning.  

I knew that the worst thing we could have done for those kids was to raise them in a lie.  It was suffocating, for us and for them.  We did our best to keep it together for them.  Especially Tim.  He really tried to save it.  I remember the year before I left there were about 100,000 Christmas lights on the house.  Like I said, he’s a fixer guy.  If something’s broken, try to patch it.  If that doesn’t work, string Christmas lights all over it and maybe you can pretend not to notice the cracks.

We took almost two years to complete the transition from separation to finalizing our divorce.  Those two years were not easy.  There were times I was insane (my face sticky with snot and tears, screaming into the phone then hurling it at the wall, which only results in a broken, spit-covered phone and a hole in the wall you just painted the perfect shade of Kansas pale winter sky blue the week before).  There were times he was insane (racing me to my new house to confront the new boyfriend who would later become my husband with every intention of killing him and hauling the body away in his truck).  Somehow, these moments of insanity remained what they were: explosive and briefly damaging, but not a permanent condition of our relationship.  What worked for us was not being crazy in the same moments.  We took turns flipping out.  It’s only polite.  There were moments of absolutely blinding frustration.  There were moments of doubt that we were doing the right thing for the kids.  There were moments of distrust of the other’s agenda.  It helped to take things slowly.  It helped keep our focus on the kids.  It helped to remember that this is a person who, although no longer a partner in marriage, is still your partner in life and parenthood.  Mostly, it helped to allow awakening in our own, separate spirits.  This shit doesn’t come out of nowhere, and there is a lot to learn about yourself in times of transition.  

Divorce is intimate, at times even more so than marriage.  It’s a much more fragile dynamic.  There isn’t the same safety net that exists inside a relationship that begins and ends in the same bed each day.  It’s much more likely that you will say the wrong thing and hear the wrong thing and the potential for escalation is not only more likely, it’s far more damaging. Reconciliation takes longer, and it requires more effort.  Maybe because there’s no sex, I don’t know.  What I do know is that what makes divorce so dangerous is not hate.  It’s love.  I was never angry or disappointed because I hated him.  I was angry and disappointed because I loved him, and he wasn’t someone I could spend my life with.  In the moments that I was honest with myself, what I heard inside my head was: Goddamnit, why can’t you be who I want you to be?  Everything would be fine if you could just... just what?  Just be someone else?  Someone entirely different than who you are?  Oh.  That is an entirely irrational and unfair thing to ask of someone.  It’s especially unkind to ask that of someone you love.  

We kept the pace of our separation cool (just last month, five years after our divorce, he gifted me with a package of photos that he found in storage) and we rebuilt our new dynamic carefully.  It’s hard to get divorced when you’re poor.  You have to figure out how to go from one double-earner household to two single-earner incomes.  I guess the upside is that there’s no expensive material stuff to fight over.  That looks like it’s probably a real bitch.  By the time we were ready to file formally for divorce, we had worked out the details and negotiated division of assets among ourselves: "I'll trade you two patio chairs for a garden hose and the kitchen knives."  We sat in the courtroom, holding hands and crying, while the attorney we shared presented our divorce papers to be signed by the judge.  He asked us if we were sure, because it seemed like maybe we’d be back the next week to get married again.  There was that much love in the room.  Even the transcriptionist looked affected.  Then we went out to dinner.  I can’t recall who paid the bill.  That’s worth mentioning, but I’m not sure why.  Okay, I do know why.  It’s worth mentioning because it’s a trap we’ve successfully avoided.  There were some moments of selfishness on each our parts, but we kept money issues pretty clean.  Without going into too much detail, let me just say that I don’t believe in asking a parent to pay child support who is already willing to participate and contribute in their kids’ lives.  I can’t see myself demanding that he write a check every month with their names in the memo line.  This is a dad who coaches their little league teams and builds them handmade beds and teaches them to fish.  It doesn’t really matter who bought their last pair of shoes.  We don’t keep that kind of score because we are still family.  

Which brings me back to the initial controversy I presented.  I know that there are some who would argue that this conversation is a green light to walk away, that I’m making a case for disposable marriages.  It’s true that the divorce rate in America is staggering.  I’m not advocating giving up on a relationship if there is even the slightest chance that it can be saved in a healthy way.  My point is that if you really can’t save it, it is possible to redefine the structure of the family while still preserving its integrity.  In the time since we’ve divorced, Tim and I have each gone on to establish solid, healthy, loving relationships.  There are amazing new family members on both sides.  There are new babies, new grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles who are firmly rooted in our family.  My daughter (from my second marriage) calls Tim YaYa ...her own nickname for him, we’re not sure why... and runs squealing to him every time she sees him.  We’re still integrated though we’ve been divorced five years now.  We sit together at ball games and recitals.  We don’t go on double dates or anything weird like that, but we are perfectly comfortable hanging out together at family functions.  Imagine a shoot from a pumpkin plant, and how it’s possible for that shoot to re-root and create a whole new plant while still maintaining connectivity to its initial root source.  I think it’s like that.  We’re separate, but still connected.

This process has not been a walk in the park.  It’s still difficult sometimes.  Divorce is sad.  It’s hard and it’s sad.  But I promised to take care of him, and I have no intention of breaking that promise.  I wasn’t doing a very good job the last few years of our marriage, what with wanting him to stop breathing and eating.  We’re getting better at it every year.  Really, we’re not that far from where we started.  We’re deliriously happy and in love, just not with each other.  We’re close friends who do each other favors and want good things for each other.  We’re raising our kids together, and they are thriving.  They are surrounded by love from all sides.  Smiles are not forced.  Laughter is genuine.  They have true examples of affection and joy.  This is how my 9 year old daughter sees our family:

It’s true that this doesn’t illustrate “traditional family values” and I guess that Family Research Council Radio guy would have some choice words about how I’ve disappointed Jesus and ruined my kids’ lives, but if the objective is to raise smart, happy people, he’d have a tough time finding a problem with the result.  Here comes the really controversial part, and the hardest part to say: I don’t believe that God or the Universe or whatever is pissed off that my first husband and I got divorced.  I can’t know what would have happened if we’d stayed together, but I do know that we are really happy, our kids are really happy.  We are proof that if two people acknowledge, then work through, their disappointments, their anger, their selfishness and resentment and treat each other with the same love and respect that they vowed to they day they married, it’s possible to live happily ever after together in unwedded bliss.

This is the only thing I’ve written that I’ve submitted for anyone to edit/approve before I published it.  It’s not my habit to ask for input.  I asked both the old and new husband to take a look at it first, so as not to step on either of their toes.  Neither one asked me to change a single word.