"I wish I weighed 120," I recently confessed to my lovely, slender husband, A. "But only so that you could carry me up the stairs when I've started drooling on the couch." Why ELSE would I want to weigh 120 lbs? To LOOK good? Ew.
Of course, some ladies who happen to be my friends and who happen to have accidentally confessed their/ her weight to me in an anecdote about weighing her baby can TOTALLY rock 120. If you're 120, yay you.
But if you're 140 and you wish you were 120 so that you looked good, I say ew to you. Either rock 140 or lose the weight. Quit your bitching. And most certainly you must stop your underhanded bragging about how good you think you look (sort of) but wish you looked better (or something). Women talking about their weight makes me want to do something violent with a fork.
I myself am not 120 and I haven't been since junior high, when I thought gaining 10 lbs a year was just what you did, and which I must have passed through at some point between 110 and 130. I'm totally okay with that. (Not about gaining 10 lbs a year, though I finally put the kabosh on that happy little trend fifteen long... minutes ago.) What I AM okay with is that I'm not a slender-boned waif. I eat kale and also jelly beans. I am never ready for swimsuit season but I can kill a room in a pair of jeans. What I'm saying is that I'm a curvy Mama who is becoming more and more aware of how this explanation is sounding like an excuse for being fat.
A note on that: I worked with a woman, let's call her Kim the Whale (I'm still a bit angry about that job, as I have realized upon writing this sentence). She lived four houses down from the workplace in question, but there was about a 15-foot mini-hill between the job and her home. I mention this because there was a visual block between the "office" (i.e. hell) and her residence, and when I tried to convince people that Kim the Whale DROVE to work, they assumed that she lived far enough away to justify such a thing. I swear to king jebus this woman got in her four-wheel drive American automobile and drove a tenth of a mile (ROUND FUCKING TRIP, I AM NOT EXAGGERATING) to work. My one moment of empathy for her came when I was pregnant, carting around an extra 30 lbs and hurting in my bones. "Shit," I thought. "If 30 lbs makes me sore, I wonder what 300 lbs feels like." Then I remembered that I got my ass up every morning and walked for half an hour BEFORE showering and walking to work. Kim the Whale believed, truly believed, that her only chance at losing weight was to make it on a weight-loss reality show. She couldn't be bothered with something as stupid as walking to work when she had applications to fill out. Poor, poor, Kim the Whale.
So back to me. I find myself longing to lose 15 lbs, then forgetting all about it when someone magically turns up with a milkshake. Mmmm, milkshakes. I wonder if what we as women should really focus on isn't the fifteen lbs, but what we think the losing of the fifteen lbs will help us attain: happiness? HAHAHAHA. Hotness? Maybe. Health. No doubt.
(((By the way (or not), why in the fuck do we use the term "lose"? I'm not LOOKING for that shit again! It's not something I'm hoping to re-acquire! How about "I threw away 15 lbs"? Because let me tell you what I would NOT dig through that sick-ass kitchen garbage to find an envelope full of money, and I certainly wouldn't be getting elbow-deep looking for something like my 15 lbs. No way, if I threw it away, it would be gone for good.)))
But in the meantime, between now and the moderate weight loss, I'd rather not spend my days thinking about how much better they (the days) would be if I were navigating them in a thinner package. I'm active, I'm healthy, and I'm feminine. I'd probably make a dynamite burlesque dancer, if I had the courage to show off my, as the New Yorker so gently put it in a recent issue (and they come so often, those wonderful damn New Yorkers, that I dare not say the "most" recent issue), discernable belly.
Could I stand to pass on the frozen desserts? Certainly. Will I? Hard to say. I suppose it depends on how badly I want my hubby to be able to carry me up those stairs as I snore on, Sleeping Beauty style but with more actual snoring.
But come on, ladies. Love it or list it. I'm not actually sure what that metaphor means in the I'm-tired-and-shouldn't-be-self-publishing-but-the-last-8-things-I've-written-were-depressing-and-I-finally-have-a-night-away-from-the-kids-so-I-should-just-write-SOMETHING language. Probably something along the lines of: decide what you want and attain it. Enough with the wishing and the poking and the announcing "I'm on a diet." Seriously, if you're thin and you complain about being fat, I will take a red-eye flight home from Zimbabwe to agree with you. I will jump into the chimpanzee cage, I will do violent things with forks, I will delete my facebook page to agree with you. You are a worthless, fat bitch and you should be ashamed of yourself. Pass the jelly beans.
When you are in the process of suffering a great hardship (a first-world hardship, sure, but a legitimate and great hardship nonetheless), it is particularly painful to review the media coverage of your hardship as a non-event.
My husband is one of those government employees who has been treated as expendable because his salary represents, to a particularly vocal bunch, government irresponsibility. The federal government is an out-of-control spending machine, they say, and it needs to stop before it self destructs. (Perhaps some of them go so far as to say self-destruction is an agreeable end, but that is another matter.) I agree, to an extent, with the principle of living within one’s means; my husband and I are frugal people because (a) it’s in our nature and (b) I left an emotionally-abusive job two and a half years ago and we’ve had to be. I didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits when I left because it’s awfully hard to prove that a hostile work environment was hostile enough to, well, make me want to drive into a telephone pole. Which it did, and which I couldn’t prove. Thus we’ve been paying our mortgage, our property insurance, our fire tax (that’s newly separate), our water/ sewer, our power, our propane, our phone and internet (which, because we live so rurally and there is only one provider, is exceptionally high on par with highway robbery), our car payment (it’s a Honda Civic, not a luxury, deemed necessary due to my husband’s 110-mile PER DAY commute), our car insurance (for the Honda and a ‘98 Ford Taurus, passed down from our passed-on Nana, bless that woman), our groceries and gas, and occasional sundries (like used winter coats for the boys and a new fuel pump for the Ford) from one federal salary. He’s a GS9; you can look up the payscale yourself.
Keep in mind two things. One: my husband worked seasonally (that’s government speak for a temp) for ten years in the same place, hoping that his dedication to the most beautiful park on earth would pay off in a permanent job. It did not. Nor did earning a master’s degree in Park and Resource Management. After having a kid and realizing that we really needed some health insurance pronto, he applied for everything: entry-level jobs in Wisconsin, HR jobs in Alaska, etc. Finally, sort of weirdly, he got hired on as a civilian DOD employee within commuting distance from our house in a professional field appropriate to his experience and education.
Two: I’ve worked my ass off looking for work. I’ve applied for every job for which I was remotely qualified, only to be told, over and over (and over and over) again that another candidate had been chosen. I’ve pieced together part time gigs babysitting or doing data entry (poorly, due to the 3- and 1-year old who also occupy my house and who happen to be my children); I’ve worked for a tutoring company that pays a decent hourly rate... when the clients grace me with their presence. (There was no company policy for a student no-show or cancellation, so I was left in the red, having invested in childcare and travel, after showing up for a scheduled sessions that the client, EVEN WITH A REMINDER CALL AND VERBAL CONFIRMATION EARLIER IN THE DAY, just plumb forgot.) Eventually I got fed up waiting around for some asshole to tell me I wasn’t good enough for their lame eleven-dollar-an-hour job so I started my own small business which, as anybody who doesn’t have an English degree may know, takes time to simply break even let alone make any money.
This is as good a time as any to remind my readers that I will soon be starting a formal petition to outlaw the English Lit. degree. If thirty grand a year at a sister school doesn’t qualify me for your piece of shit job, well, I’m clearly done here. And for the record, no, I did NOT say that during the interview.
When news of the potential sequester became news of the inevitable sequester became news of the where’s-the-doomsday sequester, I found myself having trouble sleeping. How are we going to foot all those bills when we’re already living off of 50% (okay, okay, it’s probably more like 60%) of our previous income due to my unemployment? I tried, and continue to try, to keep the worried, sleepless part of me distinct from the nurturing, mother part of me; children, at least those recently potty-trained or younger, should not be familiar with the words or concepts of "money," "bills," or "expensive."
Do these private, human concerns of mine mean that the sequester signals the end of the world? Did we file for bankruptcy within 48 hours of the bill being signed? Of course not, you idiot asshole media commentator; this particular brand of shit takes a little time to stink up the entire fucking house. The legally-required 30-day notice of the impending furlough (that’s mandated, unpaid time off, for the uninitiated) is expected to arrive any day now, and the actual furlough will most likely begin at the end of April. Using a convenient online tool called the furlough calculator which I’m sure the government shouldn’t have paid for, A., my husband, will be working four days a week and will be earning 75% of his usual take-home pay.
Do I think that the government should operate more like a business? Sure, in some ways. It should be easier to fire/ demote ineffective people. (In government-ese, once someone works three years as a permanent employee, they are given lifetime permanent status. This essentially means that they’re tenured and that they have to look at hardcore Russian porn on a work computer in order to be... mildly reprimanded.) Nails shouldn't cost $16 and seasonal employees shouldn't be exploited.
But the purpose of government is different, and beautifully so, from the purpose of business. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a country where the government’s ONLY bottom line is THE bottom line. I want to live in a country where the government must understand and provide for the needs of the employer and the employed, the religiously devout and the religiously challenged, the property owner and the homeless, the native born and the immigrant, the freckle-faced and the brown-skinned, the English major and the engineer. It’s a complicated thing to juggle, these needs of so many different groups, especially when the groups overlap and transform and disagree amongst themselves. Am I saying that it is the responsibility of the government to offer HAND OUTS, as that vocal group might say, to every type mentioned above? Of course not, don’t be a fucking scab. What I AM saying is that it is unfair to simplify the wrongdoings of the government by generalizing and inflaming the accusation, “THEY SPEND TOO MUCH!”
My husband gives bird walks once a month and gets paid by the federal government to do so. Is this a waste of money? Some would probably say yes. Many would most likely say no. Perhaps my point here, Donny, is that he was offered a job and he accepted; he then demonstrated professional creativity by offering a free community service to those interested in that particular service. Are there employees in the private sector whose jobs are redundant or who spend a few hours a month (or day) doing what others might consider wasteful? Undoubtedly. Could A.’s workplace survive without him? Probably, if it came down to it. Have others suffered greater hardships than we now suffer? Of course! Of course.
This all has nothing to do with how infuriating it is to be told by the first ten results of Google News that the sequester is no big deal. It’s a big deal to us and a big deal to the tens of thousands of other “superfluous” government families like us. I wish them luck and I hope they can find a way to manage their mortgages or rents, their phone and internet, their propane, their water/ sewer, their fire protection, their car payments for their reliable, economy cars, and their power. Especially their power. As in, power to the people, even people who happened to have been offered jobs by the employer known as the federal government, in case that wasn’t clear.
The punchline syndrome is driving me nuts not only because what I have to say is more than one hundred and forty characters but because I am funny. I just don’t want to have to prove it all the time.
I haven’t always been funny. Or, better yet, I haven’t always been confident enough to let the funny out. My adolescence started and ended later than most (whatever that means) and so the insecurities attached to that era seem to define, at least in retrospect, most of my experiences during that time. If you’re a numbers-oriented kind of person, or if you just want some basic parameters of the discussion, I would estimate that I became sexually curious at thirteen (i.e. the beginning) and began my adulthood at twenty one (i.e. the beginning of something better). The years between were not pretty even by conservative estimates.
Perhaps it was the competitive soccer team on which I never belonged. I was never a gifted athlete but perhaps because the applicant pool was so small at first, and because coaches feel some loyalty toward returning players, I made the team again and again. My most vivid memory of that group of girls was not of any time on the field, but in the moments before an away game. I approached, arriving solo as always, having been chauffeurred by my dad who, by all accounts, neither understood nor complied with basic social expectations. The team was already stretching and the leader of the pack, with whom I am currently friends on the Facebook, announced in a stage whisper, “shhh! It’s her!” She actually said my name, first and last. Reflecting upon this just now, I notice that I am especially thankful for my married name when reminiscing about post-childhood.
Perhaps it was the summer camp that inspired my college entrance essay, a place where kids could truly break out of those social boundaries that school and the world imposed... or not. As a young camper, I did feel a gradual psychic liberation during my week-long residence at that camp in the mountains. I, along with my cabin-mates, farted freely, dressed like road kill for theme lunches, and hiked more than we thought our bodies could handle (i.e. two miles). We practiced pushing against the standard rules of appropriate behavior, rules we’d only come to understand we’d learned once we had an opportunity to learn new ones. At the camp dance we glimpsed our future, where the older cabins or even the more advanced among us went coed, but where our inhibitions, in the presence of other uninhibited girls, simply melted; we were drunk on a child’s version of freedom and our cheeks ached from laughing. Yes, my childhood camp experience was a good one, but of course this is not an essay about childhood.
I was fourteen when I entered the leader in training program, which, as you might remember, was the cusp of something new. We, or perhaps I should say I, was becoming self-conscious; literally, conscious of myself, aware of how my body fit into the mass of bodies and how my voice fit into the chorus of voices that was, when mixed with the scenery, summer camp. I watched to see how others operated, noticed what choices they made, made note of which rules they broke and which they didn’t. And then I followed. I knew previous LIT groups had become the enthusiastic backbone of current young counselors, and I ached to have that kind of camaraderie, as if it was something I could own. It was only half way into the two-week program that I learned that, if you REALLY wanted to be a counselor, you had to prove it with private begging and/ or with a willingness to stay on as kitchen crew. I certainly hadn’t known this rule, and those who did know it kept it intentionally quiet. Camp became a place of competition and secrets.
I remember lying on the bottom bunk while my colleague, my co-LIT who I knew from school and who, due to the large number of LITs in that particular session, had been placed in the same training cabin as I, lay above. The real counselor and her assistant giggled in twin beds they’d pushed together. Mind, this is all outside, in a non-room behind the cabin, under a jerry-rigged tarpaulin that merely served as a buffer between a potential rainstorm and the frantic rush of moving all our things into the cabin proper. So there I was, on the bottom bunk, listening to the young women, my heroes, banter and giggle. I had so many things to contribute to their conversation! I was so funny in my head! After a while, a young man from an adjacent boys’ cabin snuck over. He climbed into the counselor’s bed and joined the party. It wasn’t sexual, but it was certainly sexually-charged. How I longed to be one of them! To be invited in! At one point the young man heard my fellow LIT roll over in the rusty metal bed and asked, with authentic concern, “What was that?”
I remember verbatim what the counselor said because it sent me into silent, sobbing convulsions. She said, “Oh, it’s nothing. It’s just the LITs.” She had confirmed everything I feared: I was unknown and insignificant. I was nothing.
If I have done anything to hurt anybody this deeply, I hereby offer a sincere apology. In fact, I’d like to know about it in as much detail as possible so I can re-offer an even more sincere apology. Perpetrators rarely remember the specifics of their offense(s), and I could tell you with casual confidence that I have never treated anybody this poorly; I’m also sure the bunk bed night is not at all seared into the now-adult counselor’s mental map. (I am certain the assistant counselor, with whom I am now actual friends, doesn’t remember. I know this because I asked her.) Furthermore, and perhaps I should have added this disclaimer a bit earlier, I don’t propose that my complete and entire adolescence was comprised of such events. But when I think about those years, even in passing, my body responds with involuntary repulsion, much as it does when it smells soured beans or sees obese patrons leaving the supermarket with a cart full of paper products: if you can’t avoid it, at least redirect your attention.
I returned to camp the next summer, against all odds, to work in the kitchen and as an assistant counselor. It seems a tad crazy to me now, in my early thirties, that, at fourteen, I was deemed qualified to assist the eighteen-year old head counselor lead a group of grammar school kids into the backcountry. But perhaps that’s what was so magic, for me, about camp: we were given an opportunity to shoulder an adult responsibility and we did it. If I whined and complained in the backseat of my mother’s car as we roadtripped our way through a family vacation, I was the one responding to the whines and complaints during the longest two miles of these campers’ lives, and I responded with positivity, creativity, and energy. As counselors (and assistant counselors) we also farted in public and dressed like road kill so it’s not like we were play acting at adulthood. No, what we had was something unique, something I wasn’t able to grasp completely due to my debilitating adolescence.
I’ve never been afraid to perform in front of others, but the pressure of performing amongst performers had me paralyzed. In fact, it still does, but only around camp people. A year or two ago I arrived late to a friend’s baby shower. She has a degree from a VERY prestigious university and as I walked into the room full of attentive women, all eyes on the lady of the hour as she opened her baby’s presents, my first response was, “oh, shit, these are all X University grads.” My second thought, I kid you not, was, “fuck it, Sarah, you own this room.” And I did.
Compare this to last summer when I attended an alumni reunion weekend at camp. I brought my boys (the little ones, anyway, as Andy works weekends and probably, in his current job, always will) and braced myself. Would I be funny enough? Would that prick jock ignore me like he had every summer so many years ago? Would there be enough people who I considered my friends in real life, outside of camp, to compensate for the number of non-friends? Would that guy who used to play songs around the campfire but who now plays his guitar to sold-out audiences show up? Would I be able to re-meet people as the new me or would I transform into the adolescent me? Why was I even sweating all this? Why couldn’t I just relax?
The short answer to these questions is that everything was fine. I found it easiest to meet people who I hadn’t truly known at camp or people I hadn’t known at all (like the wives). One man had been the director when I was a camper, but adulthood had rounded the edges of our age difference and we connected over geology and parenthood. The prick jock wasn’t so prickish, the ropy teenagers had a little more padding, and, my favorite surprise, the wives were downright the best.
In contemplating my time at camp, I have come to understand that there was a fairly clear division between the insiders' club (or those dating the insiders) and a three-part non-insiders group: (a) those wanting to be an insider, (b) those rejecting the insiders, and (c) those pretending to reject the insiders. The insiders had been quite explicitly initiated into a fraternity we’ll call the Altezzoso Family. The Altezzoso Family would send letters to campers throughout the week explaining why they were running late for their performance. These letters, I recall from my camper days, were mysterious and hilarious. Kids who had been to camp before knew what to expect, but they were universally quiet about explaining it to the newbies. The letters were read in the native Altezzoso language (i.e. gibberish) by plainclothes Altezzoso members. Finally, on the last day of camp, something like ten camp staff would dress up in the most ridiculous ensembles you can imagine and always with a facial disguise (usually a motorcycle helmet). They would perform circus stunts, or the best stunts fifteen- to twenty-year olds can invent, and often shower the crowd with breakfast scraps and water. As a camper, the Altezzoso Family embodied the magic of camp. As an adolescent, they embodied the inaccessibility of the insiders' club.
I do not write this essay to condemn the insiders nor to solicit sympathy (though, let’s face it, by this point it would probably be irritation, anyway) from my readers. I suppose I’m writing as a form of catharsis or therapy, which, come to think of it, is often the impetus for me sitting down with the proverbial pen and paper. These thoughts have gone without shape for half a lifetime and it feels good, at least on my end, to give them one.
If I could do a million good things with my life, one of them would be to found a camp that was explicit about inclusiveness. It wouldn’t be some sort of awkward, bureaucratic mandate. My camp’s inclusiveness would be its mission statement. I get it, of course, that not everybody gets along, that Group A cannot be a perfectly matched set of best friends for Group B. This is not what I mean by inclusion. I mean that those who are natural leaders would use those skills not only to gain access to the insiders' club (because that is inevitable, even if the club is implicit), but also to set an example for the many who are looking on and hoping to emulate them. Leadership would be recognized not only as an ability to perform, but as an ability to refrain and let others perform. Activities would be arranged that would encourage cooperation and teamwork, especially between those who may not have otherwise connected socially.
Even as I write this I see that camp advocates will say, “But camp does that! What about the ropes course?!” And they’re right. Perhaps my beef, then, is not with how camp is arranged for campers but how it is arranged for the leaders. Or perhaps camp is not at fault in the least and my insecure adolescence would have been equally insecure in any other context. (Don’t get me started about college. That shit was a disaster, and it pains me to hear story after story of those golden college years, years everybody else seems to want to return to.)
I don’t regret my time at camp (though I do regret my time on the soccer field), but I can’t help but wish it had been different. I wish I had been initiated into that family while simultaneously wishing that I hadn’t wanted it so badly. I wish I had been confident enough to let myself out of its frightened, adolescent cage. I wish that counselor had been nicer to me and that my friends hadn’t been so secretive about the post-LIT rules. I wish someone had noticed what a mess I was and offered to help. In all likelihood, there was probably some clinical depression that should have been addressed.
When I was twenty-one, I bought a magnet for an older friend that read, “Honey, you couldn’t PAY me to be twenty.” I kept it because it already rang true, even then, and it is still up on my fridge because it is still true. I like being done with adolescence. I like being able to like who I am. I only hope my boys can survive it without quite so much suffering. Or perhaps we can offer them better medication.
And we’re back to the punchlines. Thanks for reading.
I only stop crying when I stop thinking about it, which is a luxury for which I am ashamed. Why am I in the position to think about other things, to ask my dinner guests not to talk about it because I'd rather keep my husband's birthday party jovial and because I'm weak from weeping?
I can say a million times how sorry I am for the parents whose children were inexplicably murdered in Sandy Hook on Friday, and everyone else in the world can say a million times how sorry they are. But again I am ashamed. Who am I to wish apologies for an unbearable suffering? How dare I peer through my emotional telescope at the trauma those parents must endure. I, whose children are whole and breathing. I, who went home on Friday and added more dirty clothes to my kids' laundry basket.
The laundry breaks me. I've spent much of my time cursing that hamper which seems to magically fill up a few short hours after I've washed and dried and put away the last load. Dirty clothes, especially in such remarkable volume, have only served as an annoyance in my life. On Friday I added little M's and tiny D's clothes to that hamper, as I did the day before and as I planned to do the day after. The hamper is short term evidence of time passing, which has never, until now, felt profound. My children's soiled clothes are not a momento, and again I am ashamed for the privileged seat in which I sit.I think of twenty pregnancy tests, the fathers' eyes thrilled and nervous. I think of twenty first-Christmas ornaments with tiny footprints or photos. I think of twenty eighteen-month check ups with day-after fevers and cooing mamas. I think of twenty hilarious misunderstandings, like when my son, who is just learning how to read and spell, announced "F-A-G-S, that spells fire station!" I think of twenty first-days-of-school. Because these babies had only had one.
"Babies," I think, over and over, as I convulse with sobbing. My son asked me why my eyes were red and I tried my best to explain this nightmare in a way that wouldn't scare him. "But why are your eyes cracked?" he asked, noticing how bloodshot they were.
I am beginning to understand the human tendency toward religion. We need a narrative that is more than, "they died brutally and for no reason." I understand the need to believe that those babies are in a better place, that heaven is now graced with new faces, that they will rest peacefully until the end of days. I'm not debating heaven vs. hell here, to be clear... I'm debating heaven vs. some inexplicable universal molecular dissipation... or something... But even if that IS the epilogue, the last chapter certainly reads of cruelty and hopelessness. Even if they ARE in heaven why shouldn't we examine the circumstances which put them there and ask ourselves what we can do better next time? To prevent a next time?
My husband works with some folks who are of the mind that if the teachers had been armed, this tragedy wouldn't have occurred. I'm tempted to write my first novel based on this paradigm; a group of miscreants would plot long and hard on how to gain access to the teachers' stash and would proceed to kill every soul on campus. The argument to just arm everybody seems childish and sarcastic.
I have no idea how deep the shooter's mental illness ran. I refuse to write his name. If his final wish was to be known, my only consolation is to deny him that. But was he himself the victim of some traumatic abuse? If so, how can we EVER end such a cycle?
Did you hear about the twenty-seven year old teacher who hid her children in closets and, when the shooter entered and asked where the kids were, told him she'd brought them to the gym? He shot her and left. I had a dream once that I had left my car running while I ran into a store, quickly, to buy some gum. When I got back into my car and started to drive away, a man in the backseat put a gun to my head. I felt my vitality drain, I truly physically felt it, from my head to my neck to my belly to my knees. It drained out of me, top to bottom, because I knew I was going to die. I haven't been able to watch movies the same way since that dream, and I certainly couldn't read about Vicky Soto's heroism without crying so hard my body shook.
I feel simultaneously hopeless, politically-charged, appreciative, broken, ashamed, outraged, unsafe, safe, despondent, empathetic and inarticulate.
I am sorry, I am so sorry, a million trillion times over. Which is nothing, I know, but it's all I've got.
As always, I am left with my thoughts and my writing. And now, my tears.
If you had asked me when I was seventeen if I would ever feel comfortable at a local skate park I would have said no way no how not in a million years. Skaters were just too cool and inarticulate and athletic in a weird stoner way; they were the antithesis of who I was and the apex of who I wished I could be. This is just one example of how the seventeen-year-old me didn’t know shit. Because now, almost seventeen years after my seventeenth birthday (mind I said ALMOST), I head to the skate park rather frequently. And I have my three-year-old son to thank for it.
If you’ve never seen a preschooler on a balance bike, I recommend finding a clip on your favorite internet video site. It’s alarming and awesome, these tots on two wheels. It’s the kind of thing you’re sure can’t be possible until you see it and then you wonder why balance bikes haven’t long since replaced training wheels. But alas, this is not an advertisement, this is a story damnit and I’m sticking to it. So we head to the skate park fairly often, balance bike and tiny helmet in hand, and always with the explicit warning that if there are lots of skaters there that we absolutely cannot get in their way.
I love being thirty-one at the skate park. It’s like being white in Japan. There are dozens of unofficial rules that dictate the natives’ behaviors and I am not at all expected to know them, let alone abide. If anything, the natives find it charming when I stumble into some egregious faux pas. In Japan, I blew my nose in public. At the skate park, I initiated conversation. In both cases I was shown leniency and tolerance by those who were polite enough to hide their shock. As the mother at the skate park I am exempt, I am excused, I am forgiven. I am the foreigner.
And the view is better from the foreigner’s perch. I see that these kids are so committed to what they do, they’re willing to fall on their backs and shoulders and heads before getting up and doing it again. I really like that. I like that it’s not always easy. I like that it takes hours of practice and that we are familiar, by now, with the regulars. From up here on my perch I see that the girls (the groupies are usually girls) try desperately to distract these skaters from their tricks and that the skaters, undoubtedly as hormonally-charged as their female suitors, are so focused on their art that they are truly annoyed by the interruptions. I like that, too. What else could possible take a teenage boy’s mind off of girls? If the answer is skating, then skating I respect.
I could do without the cigarettes and the swearing, but who the hell am I to judge?
My son is the perfect ambassador. He arrives on his bike, helmet properly clipped, and if the park is hopping, he turns into a super-groupie almost immediately. “Wow! Mom! Did you see what that guy did? He jumped up over that garbage can on his skateboard!” I like to think that the skaters overhear little M’s exclamations and feel proud to have been good role-models. I know that when M does get up the courage to ask the older kids if it’s okay for him to ride his bike in the shallow little section of the concrete waves, they are fully supportive. “Right on, little man,” they’ll say. Or, to me, “that kid’s fearless. You should get him a skate board.”
In short, I suppose I’m a fan of being thirty-something. I have long since abandoned those silly desires to be someone I’m not, which is a refreshing thing to remember. Of all the things I’d like to change about my life, I really should keep in mind that they’re all circumstances. Sure, I’d buy a claw-foot bathtub (or any bathtub, really) for my master bathroom and I’d get a Prius and I’d rent an office in a more posh neighborhood, but home renovations and vehicle investments and professional regions aside, I like who I am. And I like that I’m the kind of person who can take my three-year-old and his little baby brother to the skate park and show them that skaters are people, too. People who slam into concrete and get up to try again.
When I read the chapter in Po Bronson's Nurture Shock
about the inverse power of praise, I felt like a religious convert hearing god's voice for the first time. "Holy shit," I thought. "That explains a lot."
As an only (biological) child of two parents who both worked in the field of mental health, I was given a lot of attention. And so were my feelings. Though I have quite a bit to say on THAT matter, I will refrain for the moment and summarize for your reading pleasure. In short, I was not given ample (i.e. any) opportunity to experience the discomfort of failure or rejection. If I received any feedback that was anything short of "you're PERFECT!" I assumed I had majorly fucked up and proceeded to have an earth-shattering meltdown.
Fast forward to the college years and you can see how this well-meaning parenting technique had the opposite of its intended effect. I had no coping skills for dealing with failure. Scratch that. I had no coping skills for dealing with ANY negative feedback. Once, I received less than perfect marks on an essay. I remember running to my room and crying like there had witnessed somebody die horribly. You know the kind: sobbing, tears pouring down like snot, inhaling in gasps that resemble some kind of dinosaur. The professor's comments on an essay were as follows: "this is not your best work," he wrote.
I don't mean to imply that I was a total mess all the time. I was only a total mess most of the time. And the degree of my messiness was in direct proportion to the amount of bad news I had received. I wasn't accepted to the competetive senior writing class. Cried for a day. I wasn't chosen as a candidate for a fellowship. Cried for two days.
Fast forward again to the unemployed years. Like I've said
, I am trying my hardest to fully embrace the gift that is full-time motherhood. But there is a particular brand of resentment that comes with not having a choice in the matter of employment. Scanning the classifieds for a job in the middle of nowhere covers my whole psyche in a thin layer of depression. Finding a job that moderately fits my skill set but pays like shit is a depressing icing. Making it to the interview round of a job I didn't really want in the first place and NOT getting it is the cherry on top. Repeat ad nauseum and life feels pretty grim.
But hey, at least I'm not crying all the time! Hooray me! Way to go! I'm tops! (Go ahead, insert your praise for me here ____________________________)
And now it's time to make a choice. I'm tired. Literally, I'm exhausted from feeling so sorry for myself. So I've decided to stop waiting around for some guy to maybe see that I might be the best person for their minimum-wage position. I've decided to start a small business in the nearest legitimate city (a mere three hours away). As soon as I wrote the check for the deposit on my tiny (and WONDERFUL) office, I could feel my soul start to shine from behind its cloud. This decision is empowering and frightening and risky. And it's a perfect opportunity to reflect on my resume of rejection and finally appreciate all the practice.
Because there is a very real possibility that I will fall directly onto my face in this business venture. I might acquire zero clientele. I might lose a few thousand bucks that I didn't really have in the first place. And you know what? It's going to be okay.
So thank you, hiring official that went with the bilingual lady. Thank you, ice queen
, for helping me learn my own limits of tolerance. Thank you, professor who recognized that I could do better. Thank you, little M and D, for giving me two absolutely suitable reasons for keeping well away from the workforce. Thank you, Po Bronson, for the epiphany. And thank you, Mom and Dad (and steps!) for doing the best you knew how to do. Truly. I know now that life is a spectrum, and that staying on the end that reads "you're perfect!" would be a rather boring life, indeed. Boring AND impossible.
So here I go, diving into the deep, opaque waters of the unknown. Maybe I'll swim gracefully, maybe I'll doggy paddle, but what I sure as hell won't do is drown. Even if I fail, I will. Not. Drown. I'm taking a deep breath now. And I'm jumping in.
You have been a most wonderful and supportive husband, but I thought you should know that I’ve recently developed feelings for another man. He’s witty and tall and adventurous. He’s empathetic, self-deprecating, and smart as hell. He’s also... how do I say this delicately?... published.
Oh, John Steinbeck, if I had only known the real you back in tenth grade! Perhaps those long, dull nights alone in bed with Of Mice And Men wouldn’t have felt quite so... forced. Because even though I rather liked that text, I would have never known, would have never GUESSED that your charms would eventually overwhelm me. I didn’t even know you had charms.
But then, years later, when I was pregnant with my first son I decided to bear down and get some literature under my belt. I figured I’d never have time with a rug rat under foot, and what sort of mother should ever have to confess to her offspring that she hasn’t actually read Grapes of Wrath? Whether you knew it or not, you taught me some good parenting tricks with that one, Johnny. Kids eating peaches till they get the skitters? That’s hungry all right. Thanks to your heart-breaking account of human suffering, I learned how to tell my kids that they can either eat that spinach quiche or they can march themselves straight to bed. So thanks for that.
It wasn’t until I’d had two children (who were finally asleep) that I opened Travels with Charley. By the end of the first paragraph I was salivating. By the end of the first page, I was fantasizing. By the end of the first chapter, I was totally in love.
I felt that you were really opening up to me with your first-person narrative. So coy! You offer years and years of fiction and then suddenly a personal non-fiction account of your cross-country road trip? You’re a tease, John, you really are. Thanks to Travels with Charley, I can say with confidence that I* know the real you. I know every detail of your campervan, your laundry bucket, and your drinking habits. I know what’s in your garage (junk!) and the name of your boat (Fayre Eleyne, after your wife, but no matter). I know all about that long lonely night in Maine.
So back to you, A, my dearest love. I have a proposition for you. If you can find it in your heart to stay with a distracted woman; if you can continue to tolerate my profanity, eccentricity, impatience, grumpiness, criticism, and overall negativity; if you can refrain for another lifetime or so from running screaming from the home we share; if you can make some room for my new friend Mr. Steinbeck, well, then I think we have a shot at making it.
Al(most all) my love,
*(and anyone else with an Amazon account)
Dear Tina Fey,
I'm funny as hell. Can I have a job please?
Thanks a million,
When I first spotted Amanda Todd’s video posted on an anti-bullying website, I thought her to be an exceptionally brave young woman. If you’re unfamiliar with her story, she’ll tell you about it herself. In a nine-minute You-Tube video that starts with “Hi!” (the exclamation point is dotted with a heart) and ends with a gruesome tale of heartlessness, cyber-stalking, assault, anxiety, and depression, Amanda Todd will, via a series of flashcards, chronicle her long journey of abuse.
It was only after I had watched the video that I learned she had committed suicide, and I was beside myself. I was devastated. How could...? But where was...? If only there were...? Who the hell...? And that’s the one that stuck: who the hell would let their children torment another human being in such a way? Where were her perpetrator's MOTHERS for crying out loud?
My husband, A., thinks that they, the mothers, probably didn’t know what their kids were doing. “Ignorance and indifference are totally different,” he reminded me. And he’s right. It’s one thing to know that your child is essentially murdering another child through cyber-bullying and proceed to ignore it, it’s quite another to not know about the cyber-bullying at all. (The comments these kids left when they found out Amanda had survived an attempted suicide were the kinds of things you would hear in a civil war; they spoke to her as if she were sub-human, as if she somehow deserved verbal, emotional, physical abuse, and even death. DEATH! To be fair, this is her version of the story. But even if she’s exaggerated the details, she has clearly been the victim of repeated crimes.) Perhaps some mothers fall somewhere in between: they know their children are participating in unsavory ways in online conversations, but assume these contributions are harmless? This seems even worse than complete ignorance or complete indifference.
So where does that leave us mothers? Do we disallow the use of technology unless it can be carefully monitored? Do we then closely monitor our kids even as they become pubescent and confusing and dependent on access to private space? Or do we think bigger? This morning I woke up and told my three-year-old this story:
Sarah: Yesterday I found out that a girl named Amanda Todd died.
M: That’s a silly name.
Sarah: Why is it a silly name?
M: Why is that her name?
Sarah: That’s the name her mommy gave her, just like M is the name I gave you and D is the name we gave your little brother.
M: Oh, okay.
Sarah: So this girl Amanda died. I feel very sad about it and I want to teach you something.
M: Why did she die?
Sarah: That’s the story I’m going to tell you. See, Amanda made some bad choices. Do you ever make bad choices? Like when you whine and cry instead of just asking politely?
M: (hesitantly) Um, yes.
Sarah: Right, you make bad choices sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Mommys make bad choices sometimes. EVERYBODY makes bad choices sometimes. As long as we’re not hurting other people, it’s okay to make bad choices sometimes. It doesn’t mean we’re bad people.
Sarah: So this girl Amanda made some bad choices and the kids she went to school with were REALLY mean to her because she made some bad choices. Now, if somebody makes a bad choice and it hurts you, it’s okay to tell that person that you don’t like what they’re doing. Is it mean to say “I don’t like that, please stop”?
Sarah: Right, that’s not mean. Is it mean to say, “I don’t like you, you’re not my friend, you’re not a good person.”
M: Yes, that’s mean.
Sarah: Right, that IS mean. We wouldn’t say those mean things to our friends. It’s okay to tell somebody that you don’t like what they’re doing. It’s okay to ask them to stop. But it’s not okay to be mean just because somebody made some bad choices.
M: So why did she die?
Sarah: So Amanda felt so sad that these people had been mean to her that she died. Her heart hurt so much that she died.
M: Oh. I don’t want to die.
Sarah: No, of course not. Well, everybody dies at some point, but usually we get old first. Amanda was still a kid and she died because people were mean to her and she felt really, really sad. I want you to know that it’s NOT okay to be mean to people just to make them sad. Do you understand?
M: Yes, Mommy. Will you tell me that story again?
I did. And then I did again. And it made me feel better. And (I think) it introduced something simple but profound to M in a way that he could digest. As despondent as Amanda Todd’s death makes me feel about the state of our connection to our own humanity, I felt better teaching my son the basics of decent versus indecent behavior. I hope other parents take a cue and talk to their children, young as they may be, about the same topic. By the time they need to apply the lesson they’re already out of your sphere of influence.
Let’s teach our kids early how to recognize and respond to the emotions of others. Let’s raise a generation of kids who are NOT perpetrators of these cyber crimes. Let’s not shy away from this because it’s ambitious and sticky and difficult. Because while it is all those things, it is also imperative. Let’s do this together. Let’s do it for Amanda.
Time stopped when I saw the green minivan parked across the street. Time ALWAYS stops when I see a green minivan because for a flash of an instant I wonder if I'm about to see her, the ice queen. It only takes a millisecond after these green van sightings for me to take a breath and remember that she is no longer my "boss
." (She never really was, technically speaking, even two long years ago when we worked/ didn't really ever WORK together.) It's also become clear that not every green minivan is owned by the bitch in question.
We had just pulled up to the parking lot at the Children's Museum and both boys were asleep in the back seat. I got out, stretched, and sat in a patch of dappled sun. It was a perfect fall day: cool in the shade, warm in the sun. That was when I saw the uncomfortably familiar vehicle parked across the street at the plant nursery. Oh shit. It had a skybox. It could most possibly be her.
I took a breath. I putzed with my cell phone. I checked on the boys. I kept an eagle eye on the green van. On second look, it seemed more silver than green. Besides, what would the ice queen be doing down in this town, anyway? It was possible that it belonged to her, but probable that it belonged to someone else.
But then she appeared, holding her daughter as any mother holds a child (i.e. not in a particularly bitchy way) and dropping off a wagon in the front of the store before disappearing back inside. My heart thumped, thumped, thumped, thumped. I could feel each beat distinctly, powerfully. The moments were amplified by the sound of my own blood pounding through my own ears. I couldn't tell if it was the coffee or the adrenaline or some combination therein, but I had to take a shit and I had to do it soon.
Now I started using my phone as a phone, calling the short list of trusted friends and family who had seen the slow collapse of my emotional stability as I survived the ice queen's verbal beating upon verbal beating. I thought about the people who would understand the intensity of the present situation and who would have the sensitivity to know the right thing to advise.
Because the more I grow up, the more I learn that it's not always a great idea to make decisions while I'm hot. (Ask my mother; she probably knew this to be true by my third birthday.) On one hand, I didn't want to pass up a rare opportunity to stand up for myself. The ice queen had silenced me once with those icy tentacles, and I was eager to empower myself by finally responding to her... albeit two years later. These are the lines I came up with:
"Hi! Just wanted you to know you're still the most evil bitch I've ever met!"
"Hi! You look awful! I still hate you!"
I'm not proud, okay, but that's the best I could do. I called my friend who was escaping from an emotionally-abusive romantic relationship at the same time I was escaping from my emotionally-abusive professional situation. She helped pull me out of my hole and I helped pull her out of hers. She wasn't home.
I called my friend who just moved out of state. She knew everything about me and was level-headed. She didn't answer.
I called both my mom and my mother-in-law. Nothing.
I called my sister. I called my friend who knows the ice queen professionally and has expressed retroactive sympathy for the abuse I suffered. I called my other sister. No answer. No answer. No answer.
What the WHAT?! If I were religious I probably would have prayed, but instead I thought about the Dexter episode we'd watched the night before: Dexter, the serial killer with a heart of gold, was struggling with his own interntal lightness and darkness. As Dexter comforts his dying friend, the criminal-turned-believer Brother Sam (who had not only turned around his own life, but who had helped other ex-cons by giving them jobs at his auto repair shop), Dexter confesses that he knows Brother Sam's shooter and that he's going to make the shooter pay. "No," says Brother Sam. "You must forgive him," he says before he dies. Dexter, struggling with making the quote unquote right choice, invites the shooter for a walk on the beach. He is clearly trying to fulfill Brother Sam's last wish. He tells the shooter that he knows the truth and that he, the shooter, should turn himself in to the police. The shooter laughs arrogantly, claiming it's his word against Dexter's. He is not at all upset by having killed a good man. And so Dexter snaps. He gives in to his darkness and drowns the guy.
Let me be clear: I didn't want to KILL the ice queen, but I was struggling with my own dark and light responses to her. The trouble was that I didn't know which was which. If I said something would I regret having instigated something (anything) with a she-devil? If I said nothing would I regret having been passive and weak? What was the "right" thing to do? What the hell WOULD Jesus do?
In the end, I decided to sit back and glare. I did find it in my heart to flip her off as she turned onto the main road; this expression of quiet anger felt remarkably appropriate. As she drove away, Baby D woke up. I said a silent thank you for having somewhere along the way transformed into the kind of mother/ kind of person who doesn't have to make a scene. I felt like a grownup and my heart began to beat normally.
I considered how I could schedule meditation into my weekly routine, brought the boys into the museum, and went on with my day.
And I think that's a good thing.