writing exercise #48: She realized that the person in front of her in line was the defeated candidate.

She realized that the person in front of her in line was the defeated candidate. In his jammies. He looked unshaven by at least a few days. His jammies, camo green, had elephants on the pants and the button up shirt matched the color, turquoise, of the pachyderm print. This made her feel especially bad that she’d been out of town during the election and hadn’t bothered to send in her absentee ballot. Shit. He’d only lost by a few hundred votes. And he was so cute.
Their eyes met.
“Hi,” she said.
“Oh, hi,” he mumbled.
Asking how it was going seemed insensitive, so she opted for, “Sure is sunny out today!”
He agreed. Added something about the drought.
“Right,” she said. “The drought. It’s terrible.” She tried to remember how she was supposed to feel. What she was supposed to do. Probably not take such long showers.
He accepted his gluten-fee double chocolate muffin and shuffled to a table. She ordered her soy latte, 16 ounces, and joined him.
“So,” she said.
Their eyes met again. Like something out of a romance novel, she thought.
What the hell, she thought. She sat down next to him.
“I thought you were a great candidate,” she said.
“Oh, thanks,” he responded. He looked down at his attire as if noticing it for the first time.
“It’s my face,” he said. “It’s not a good face.”
“Soy latte? Grande?” the barista called. She stood, picked it up, returned.
She examined his forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, chin, cheekbones. “I think your face is fine,” she said. “Pleasing, actually.”
He chuckled, glanced at the ground. Then, without moving his head, tilted his eyes at her. “Want to come over?”
What was she to do? Poor guy, had been crushed by the opposition, except not crushed, exactly, but overwhelmed. And so they shared a moment of skin on skin, kisses, the reaching of hands across bodies.
Immediately after, she felt that familiar need to race to the door. Why was it such a challenge to find someone who felt the way she felt, emotionally, politically, physically? Was she asking too much?
I hate this, she thought. It’s all so corny, cliché. Who cared? The voters, she thought. They were the ones who got robbed. Their apathy, their busy lives, wait, she thought, I am one of those with the busy life. Just a couple hundred votes and he could’ve been a winner, earning an upper middle class wage and leading constituents into the future. Instead, here he was, with her, awkwardly preparing for a moment that wouldn’t matter immediately after and there ya go.
Afterwards, he turned to her. “Do you think I have a chance?” he asked.
She paused. “Maybe 2016,” she cooed. “That might be your year.”

(Failure to) Disconnect

It was too grand a plan, this idea of mine. I was embarking on my annual trek to visit my brother in New York and thought, How grand would it be to not only take a vacation from work, but heighten the sense of escape by staying offline? I would be unreachable (except in case of emergency). I would chronicle my daily experiences in Word instead of WordPress, upload one or two quality blog posts at the end, old-fashioned-like. I would be free.

Even before I arrived, I imagined how proud I’d be for committing to be more present when visiting. I would let moments exist in their own space, savor them, and then move on. Not everything needs to be documented – “Hey, look at me!” – all the time, I remembered. Nor do I need to always see what everyone else is up to. I would reciprocate the excellent company of my brother and my sister-in-law by giving them my full attention.

The morning I left, I deleted the Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, Hangout and Instagram apps from my phone. I spared Paper and Tumblr since I use those mostly just for reading. (I kept WhatsApp because Kaylee’s in Europe and that’s how we’re communicating, so, of course.)

I would use my laptop only to work on my novel, freelance assignments or otherwise write offline.

I confess, I also had a bit of ego in the game. I wanted people to miss me.

Here’s how it went:

“On vacation!” I posted to Facebook in the form of an out-of-office auto response. Before I could log off, a friend noticed that I’d typed “back Thursday, June 10,” which put my return several years in the future instead of one week away on Thursday, July 10. People riffed. It was pretty funny.

My attempt to disconnect from work failed. Despite pronouncing myself “unavailable,” I ended up checking my email because I needed some key piece of information, a flight time or receipt confirmation or such. And then I would notice meetings being scheduled. Flyers being made. Questions about events arising. A mistake I needed to fix.

To be clear, no one forced me to respond to all these emails – emails were going happen regardless of what I was doing away from the computer and disregarding my vacation assertions by answering them was wholly my fault. But once I’d entered into dialogue, I had to see the conversation through. I ended up on email daily.

I needed to get online to plan my days. What would the weather be like? (Hot and muggy was a given, and really, I could’ve just gone with that, but no – let’s look at the exact temperature and percentages.) What would the surf be like? (This proved to be critical, as I was able to catch an early bit of Hurricane Arthur out in Long Beach.) Did we want to try to get tickets to a show? (Yes, but Hedwig and the Angry Inch was sold out.) How much money did I have left in the bank? (Yikes. Also, oops.)

Where I succeeded, the first couple days, was in not using my phone as the sole source of comfort and distraction. I people-watched. I eavesdropped. I took photos as something to remember the trip by instead of using them to holler, “I am here! Right now!” at my online friends. I was not that person only half paying attention to the world around her and that felt great. As one should do in New York. Or life.

The world contracted to be whatever Tag, his wife Jen, and I were doing, saying, making happen. This included visiting the Transit Museum, driving out to Long Beach for the aforementioned surf experience, fireworks over the East River, bicycling out to Rockaway for a day at the beach, East Coast-style.

It was during the Fourth of July party that I first slipped. Inspired by all the America-themed face paint adorning the people around me, I made a little Vine. They loved it.

And because I was trying to coordinate with a few friends via Facebook messaging (using Paper, which is Facebook, but almost totally not), I couldn’t help but notice messages from other people on various topics. Upcoming shows. Questions about references. Etc. You know how Facebook tells the sender when you’ve read their message? I hate that because once that’s noted, I feel like I have to respond. So I responded. (Note: Not everyone suffers the same sense of obligation.) In the course of these interactions, I’d see something someone posted that I liked. So I would “Like” it.

Then my daughter texted me, “Why aren’t you liking my Instagrams?” Good question. I missed keeping up with her journey and the comfort seeing her photos brought. So I reinstalled Instagram. And then I uploaded a photo. And then another.

My music column was due. I went back online. Finished with a minimum of fuss and far too many puns. Took a breath. Rented a bike. Rode alongside my brother through Brooklyn, Queens, out to Rockaway.

Despite all this, my internet use, especially that of social media, was notably less than usual. Yes, I’d posted to Vine and Instagram, but neither of those accounts provoke conversation, just the occasional quiet cheer. Staying off Facebook was huge – no newsfeed to get sucked into, no back-and-forth about the photo or topic du jour. I appreciate the ways in which Facebook allows me to keep in touch with people far away, to promote events, but not using it reminded me how much time using it takes up.

Then the holiday weekend ended and everyone but me went back to work. Staying off social media when alone proved much harder, especially when waiting for things as one does in New York. Facebook and Twitter are my go-to time killers. Instead I opened Notes and typed out things I wanted to remember when I wrote about my trip.

Until the moment when I found myself cycling over the Brooklyn Bridge. I caved. I was excited about what I was doing and wanted to share it with someone, so I did: I selfied and posted.

I also decided I wanted to write about biking in New York City versus biking in Humboldt, which rekindled my internet interactions. I could’ve waited to write the post, but I knew that the inspiration would probably flag if I didn’t take advantage of it.

As could have been predicted by now, I did not look away in time and found myself immersed in comments instead of turning wholly to the other writing assignments I’d given myself. This was my last day in the city and I’d planned to spend it combining two rare opportunities, one being in New York and the other having uncommitted hours to string words together.

Sitting in a Manhattan park, using the free wifi, listening to the two guys beside me workshop their poetry/rap/beats illustrated a good fortune I should’ve better utilized.

Little by little, my disconnection never quite happened. But I did shift from habit to thoughtfulness. If I’d been staring into my phone, I would not have caught the sunset between buildings as the train whisked by. If I’d been checking in to Facebook during brunch at The Sea Witch or dinner at The Pickle Factory, the conversational flow would’ve been more sporadic. Instead the constant flow led to the kind of dialogue more likely to happen face-to-face than over chat. Eye contact is awesome.

That’s what I hope to hold onto – the streamlining. I did not reinstall Facebook or Messenger on my phone and I’m thrilled at the lack of notifications. Again, I realize some people can leave things unread, but I suffer from a sense of responsibility to those trying to contact me. As it is, I decide when I want to access Facebook (via Paper), which allows me the power over it. And because Paper encourages reading outside of one’s newsfeed, I find myself intrigued by headlines announcing creative endeavors, social justice rulings, etc.

I plan to hold on to that power.

The benefits of shutting up

“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” ­ – Mark Twain

Sometimes, when you make a mistake, what you need to do is to shut up and not make it worse.

Hard lesson to learn.

It’s counterintuitive, after all, because we often believe if we keep talking, keep explaining, that we’ll make ourselves understood.

People say to share your feelings, don’t keep them bottled up.

But people would rather chance losing everything than appearing a fool. In a civilized country, looking stupid is one of the worst things that a person can do. And yet, we find ourselves splayed out, slathered in emotion, exposing ourselves and regretting it even before the consequences unfold.

So my advice, like all other good advice, is to put a sock in it. Walk around the block instead of broadcasting your heartfelt feelings on the matter. Do some pushups. Write in your journal instead. Reinforce that wall around your heart until someone worthwhile breaches it with love, kindness, understanding. Never assume they are worthwhile. Let time pass. Remember you are not who are you in your lowest moments. Remember you deserve more.

You will make it.

Stop. Back away. Sit down,

Forgive yourself.

Breathe some more.

I thought I needed religion, but the only church I considered following lacked confession. And then I remembered, all I need is writing.

insomnia #23 aka I Continue to Worry

Woke up thirsty, can’t get back to sleep, feeling weirdly alone and less weirdly, fraught with worry. I’m at my friends’ house, spent the afternoon and evening hanging with them and their 20-month-old. She’s precious. Before this, I spent two days with my friends who have a three-year-old. Before this trip, I took dinner to another friend who has a two-week old and before cradling her new baby, I visited my dear neighbor who had just had hers.
All these babies and little children, so far from my own grown ones. They’ve moved through the teenage years, I breathe a little easier, but a certain helplessness takes hold. You try to tell them, “Learn from me!,” but they make mistakes anyway. It’s like watching someone continually drive down a one-way street and you want to explain that she needs to go a different way, but she refuses to stop for directions no matter how frantically you wave. Sometimes scrolling through Facebook feels like reading chapter after chapter of bad decisions, evidence that loving was not enough, that I clearly wasn’t the mother I meant to be or she wouldn’t struggle so.
I had a nightmare last night that my daughter traveling through Europe was kidnapped! I woke gasping, unable to shake the worry until she responded to my text – cleverly nonchalant, “Hi! How’s it going?” She’s fine. More than fine. Thrilled to be in Ireland, her childhood dream come true.
I think my son’s doing okay. He’s working, doing landscaping, going to CR and learning to take care of getting his prescriptions, deal with the healthcare system and making his own doctor’s appointments. Leaving it all in his hands is another worry, but he must know how to do these things. “You must know how to do these things!” I told him. “What if I die tomorrow and you don’t know how to refill your insulin?” (Random morbidity, a hallmark of my parenting style.)
What I don’t know is how well he’s controlling his blood sugar. How much he thinks about his health beyond the here and now. Does he consider the long-term impacts of his lifestyle in regards to his diabetes? What about his A1C? Thoughtful, balanced food intake and physical exercise? I ask and inform him. He tells me he’s on it. These exchanges take all of four seconds and do not reassure me.
I was holding my friend’s baby and trying to remember my own children being that small. My heart lurched, I swear it literally jolted out of place, to look back at that time and know how troubled the road ahead. I’m weary. I strive to shake the sense of failure and yet it creeps up on me at times like this, at 4 a.m., in a bed I am grateful for and should be happy in.

writing exercise #47: “I only remember the dogs’ names”

I only remember the dogs’ names. The children’s, those escape me.

No wonder, when I think about how often Sophia called the dogs. “Buddy,” she’d wail. “Trigger,” she’d cry. “Lucky,” she’d holler out in such a way the name took on three syllables. “Luh-uck-eee.”

Goddamn dogs. Yes, no wonder I could remember their names.

Buddy wasn’t anybody’s. He bit my youngest daughter when she was two. Lunged at her when she toddled past his food bowl. Didn’t break the skin, thank God, but Lula screamed whenever she saw a dog until she was 10 or so.

And Trigger? The only thing more disgusting than how fat he was – seriously, what was my sister feeding him? – was how determined he was to, a.) stick his nose into your crotch; b.) hump your leg. I’ve had gynecologists less invasive and boyfriends less single-minded.

Lucky was the worst. Part golden retriever, part God-knows-what, the creature could never relax. “Stickstickstickstick!!!” he would convey through the power of wagging tail and focused stare. He shed like every hair on his constantly trembling body needed to be off and off now.

I remember one day, early spring, the day had broken with the promise of summer and her oldest daughter, who was still no taller than my waist at the time, had set up the Slip’n’Slide, no one to help her, no need. Johnny, my sister’s husband, of course he was named Johnny, coming after Dwayne and Mickey as if they’d lined up in order of cliché, was barbequing, hollering at the kids the whole time, “Hot! It’s hot over here!” Meanwhile, their daughter continued to organize the children. I saw them through rippled air.

And then the slipping and the sliding drew the attention of Lucky. Whatever instinct kicked in caused him to go after each child in turn. The kids, being kids, didn’t realize what was happening, didn’t make the connection between his lunging and their sliding until he’d chewed through their pants and two of the younger children had run screaming to their mothers.

My sister’s child, the one who had commanded everyone to play this game, charged Lucky with a stick, an erstwhile mother to her lost siblings. Lucky lunged for the stick, locked onto it, knocked her to the ground and let go the stick long enough to clamp his teeth around her scrawny eight-year-old arm, shaking it like this was a game and by the time we pried him off, my own husband forcing his jaws by blows to the head, her flesh had been gnawed to the bone.

“My baby!” my sister shrieked. She meant the dog. Lucky was, indeed.

My niece, not so much. She still trembles when we visit.

writing exercise #46: It’s good to be cold sometimes

She slid out of bed, turned off the alarm before it could wake her husband, slipped downstairs with only the slightest click of the bedroom door giving her away. Dawn had broken, turning the kitchen pink. She watched the teakettle. Boil, already. Achieving verticalness was always the hard part of getting up early, but once on her feet, Maddie owned the morning. Waiting around as the sun rose higher and the wind threatened to kick up sent her searching for ways to keep busy.

She folded the laundry, sliding her hands along her son’s jeans to ensure the crease would be in the proper place.

She slid on a hoodie, sneakers, fetched the mail, tiptoeing out the door to the street and back.

She pulled off the hoodie, kicked off the sneakers, emptied the dishwasher, setting each glass and pan down so gently only the slightly clinks and clanks made it through the kitchen.

The teakettle threatened to whistle. She shut off the flame and poured the near-boiling water over two tea bags of Irish breakfast. Checked her phone. They were supposed to meet in 30 minutes.

Maddie texted. “Still on for this morning?”

Five minutes passed. She killed the time with lunges, plies, leg swings, random yoga moves she’d read about in some magazine while getting her hair cut. O, maybe.

“Yeah!” he texted back. “On my way!”

She was glad he used exclamation points.

She pulled the tea bag squeezer thing from the drawer, pressed the tea bags flat, discarded them into the compost bucket. Added a splash, pause, splash of milk. Sipped. Smiled.

Maddie went back outside, shivered, tugged her beanie on with her free hand. The wind threatened through the trees, rustling the eucalyptus until the cat-piss smelling pods dropped. She checked the tire pressure. Seemed full. Her tea was half gone. She would need her red windbreaker, helmet. Gloves.

She stepped into her house. The warmth of last night’s fire lingered. She padded upstairs, grabbed her gloves, brushed powder onto her face, mascared her curled eyelashes, kissed her husband, mumbled something about being back soon and left as he mumbled something back. “Love you, too,” it sounded like. The light had changed to gold, slanting in through the skylight.

As she pedaled away from her home, tea forgotten, helmet donned, red windbreaker announcing her existence to passing cars, the gold faded to the usual blue, a pretty enough color, Maddie thought, but totally predictable. It was only in the beginnings and endings of the day that the surprises happened.

The morning chill hit as she rode over the bridge, the breeze racing across the water, up her sleeves, across her ears, into her throat. She could be home in bed, pressed against her snoring husband, their shared comforter agreeably heavy across her legs. He’d painted the walls sky blue last year, her favorite color, because it was her favorite color. Blue, blue, blue, she thought, looking at the expanse above her. Another stupidly beautiful day.

She dodged a Honda, a Ford, a Toyota, what was wrong with people? She was on a bicycle, not invisible, not with her red windbreaker advertising I Am Here, I Am Here. Her fingertips tingled as she twisted the combination on her bike lock, smeared gloss across her lips. Someone had told her once that the temperature usually dropped right after dawn before warming up again. Maddie hadn’t validated the information, but right now she was sure her former coworker had been correct.

Marcel sat with his back toward the door. He was not watching for her, not waiting to welcome her. She moved into the line. Ordered a bagel, a coffee. Marcel still hadn’t noticed, too busy with his phone. Who was he talking to, she started to wonder, then caught herself. It doesn’t matter, she reminded herself. “Oh, hey,” he said as she slid into the chair across from him.

“Hey,” she said back.

He finished typing something on his phone, looked up.

“Hey,” he said again.

“Hi,” she said.

He gestured to his laptop. “Want to see a video?”

“Right now?” she said.

“Yeah!” he said, clicked play. She watched two South African musicians rage hip-hop style in various stages of undress. “It’s brilliant, right?” he said.

“I guess,” she responded. She held his gaze, talk to me, she thought. His hand rested large and smooth on the table. She longed to stroke it, settled for a quick pet while nervously glancing around the café.

He glanced at his phone, pulled his hand away to type something, set the phone, then his hand, back down. “Maddie b-baddie,” he sangsong, tapping on the table.

“Maddie?” the barista announced, sliding a bagel laden with too much cream cheese and a cappuccino weak with foam across the counter. Maddie retrieved them, sat back down, shoved the bagel into her mouth, each bite consisting of too much bread and spread to do more than nod at Marcel as he kept tapping and typing.

“Well,” he said as she finished her last bite, used yet another napkin to wipe away crumbs real or imaginary from her mouth. “I guess we have to get to work.” He raised his hand for a high-five.

A high-five? Maddie thought. She raised her own hand, slapped his. They walked out together. He waved bye as he climbed into his car, sped off. She unlocked her bike, pedaled over the bridge, the wind once again reminding her what being cold felt like.

Back home, she peeled off her shoes, socks, bike pants, sports bra, T-shirt, windbreaker. Shivering, she slid back into bed, pressed against the warmth of her husband. “How was your bike ride?” he asked, eyes closed.

“Fine,” she said. “Cold.”

“Poor thing,” he responded, reaching out for her. Feeling her nakedness, he opened his eyes. “Mmmm,” he said. “Your butt is freezing,” he said.

“I know.” She wrapped her leg around him. “It’s good to be cold sometimes,” she said. “It reminds me how nice it is to be warm.”

 

Small triumphs: An exercise in gratitude

It’s good to practice gratitude. Especially on a day like today, when I started off sleepy from last night’s sirens blaring past my motel. Some yelling, too. Pillow not quite firm enough for sleeping on my side, not quite soft enough to tuck under my head when I rolled to my back. Such is the struggle of a middle-class white lady in a cheap Santa Cruz motel. Tonight I anted up an extra $32 for a room at the Quality Inn in Capitola. So far, worth every penny. Quiet with better pillows and a fancy showerhead.

While I am grateful for the small comforts a bit of money can buy – and suffer guilt for even the most modest financial advantages – today’s acknowledging of The Good stems from deeper roots.

1. I have not used Google maps once on this trip. I shouldn’t need to. I’ve been to San Francisco a hundred times and Santa Cruz at least several. But technology has dimmed my once bright sense of direction. On this journey, however, I remembered how Water branches off from Soquel and both cross Ocean, and I can take Capitola Road to get from the Eastside to the Westside and back again.

2. I solved a bouldering problem. Oh, sure, it was the most beginner of the beginner paths, but for someone who has never tied on climbing shoes before today and suffers from sneaky bouts of vertigo, to plant my toes on outcroppings smaller than two of my fingers and launch upward required a perseverance I wasn’t sure I had. First of all, this Santa Cruz climbing gym spilled over with: a.) what I inappropriately refer to as “man candy”: conventionally attractive and ripped young men who apparently lack the fear gene that keeps the rest of us from wandering up cliff faces; b.) women just as fearless, rocking strong glutes, rounded calves and imbibed with a devil-may-care lacksadaisy that gives them an elegance I can only envy.

My daughter and her friends advised me. They encouraged me. They explained key elements of climbing. Keep your arms extended. Carry the weight in your hips. Stay close to the wall. They showed me, repeatedly, how to scale the thing. The first time, every move was awkward and tiring. Step where? Reach what? My ineptitude embarrassed me. I wanted to quit. I considered telling them I’d go run errands and come back. But I didn’t want to be that mom, the one who can’t handle learning in public. I was that kid. I’ve come a long way, learning to surf, taking akido, standing on a stage talking to a crowd as if it’s no big thing. I was not going to give up.

With each successive attempt, the path grew easier. By the seventh time, the initial steps were habit. Sure, I did fall on my ass once. Embarrassing, but K and her friend just laughed and went with it.

In between all this, K scaled hither and yon, all guts and grace, as fearless now as she was poised in the batter’s box at 10 or 14-years-old, waiting for her pitch. I kept trying. The first couple steps, then the first several, became habit. My focus shifted from how far the ground was below me to how close the goal was above. Twice I almost made it. “We should get going,” K finally said. “Let me try one more time,” I announced. I grabbed on to the handholds, stepped up on the starter protrusions. One, two, three, reach, balance, pull, switch feet, reach higher, shift my weight and suddenly I was there, no big deal at all, my right hand planted firmly above the orange finish line, proving I was a person who succeeds. I did not clamber down smoothly – I pushed off, letting myself fall and landing in a crouch, my butt inches from the row of guys perched on the periphery. Elation rippled through me. I’d done it! One microscopic step for mankind, one giant leap for me. I’ve been angry at my body lately, aching knees and sore shoulder, but it came through. Thank you, body. Thank you, mind. Thank you, daughter and friends. The giddiness of physical achievement buoyed me into the evening.

3. I made dinner for K and her friends. The years have provided experience in cooking and enough of a salary to fill a basket at Trader Joe’s. Granted, one can put most any food in front of starving college students and they will be gratified, but my happiness in feeding them is only more so from their appreciation. Besides, I am quiet while I cook, which allows me to listen, which assures me, they are good kids, thoughtful in their opinions, witty in their humor, wry in their perspectives. What a thing to be privy to.

My shoulder aches. My knees hurt. It’s late and I should be sleeping. What a grand day to be blessed with.

From Pancakes to Parting: On Being Mom

Like the bed, this chair is not quite comfortable. I’ve stayed here before. It’s one of the many Santa Cruz motels retro-beach themed. I enjoy the throwback font on the sign and the place is clean enough, but it’s the price that lands me here. Upscale hotel rooms with their fluffy pillows, non-polyester bedspreads and fancy toiletries please me. A guilty pleasure. But I’m aiming for thrifty on this trip. I packed food. I did not order a glass of wine at dinner. My funds need to go toward ensuring K has everything she needs that I can provide before she jets off to Europe for the summer. That’s why I’m here. To spend time with her before thousands of miles separate us and to be Mom.

It’s strange how my mothering role has changed with the girls off in the world and Nick having one foot out the door. After two decades of almost always having a kid or three attached to me, I now move through the days almost wholly myself. People I’ve met in the last few years know I have children, but they’ve never known me as “Mom!” – I’m just Jen. They’ve never heard me bubble over with pride after a Little League game, never heard the panic in my voice when I called to say one kid or another needing rushing to the hospital, have no idea how good I am at making pancakes or that I spent a year as a “nacho mom” when Chelsea was in fourth grade. I appreciate that I never let my identity disappear into motherhood, but to see me without it is incomplete.

“You had Chelsea when you were my age,” K noted recently. She’s 20.

“Yes, and I had you when I was Chelsea’s age.” I rejoined. Chelsea’s 24.

It’s strange.

I was pregnant at 19. In my entire life as an adult, I was never not a mother. In the past year, Bobby and I have grown used to being the only people in the house. We cook less. Once a treat so rare we couldn’t even relax into it, now a night home just the two of us is commonplace – Nick crashes at his friends’ places often. The house stays clean, more or less. Especially since we buried our dog last year.

I miss certain things: reading out loud, giggle-filled hikes out to the beach, making pancakes. I do not miss the rebellious teenage years, the endless running late places, the laundry. I’m enjoying feeling myself emerge more wholly these past few years, although rediscovering and redefining oneself is not as simple as a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. This era might feel a bit like I’m finally having the twenties I never had – and I confess, I envy certain freedoms younger women have gained, the confidence they have in their right to expect better from men, from careers, from their parents, the ability to be their own ass-kicking selves without apology, but it’s not like I need to suddenly get my party on.

Because I am most definitely not 20-something and I worked in bars through much of that decade anyway, so it’s not as if I missed out on going out. I saw bands. I had (still have) good times. I’ve always been rich in friends. I just had to accept certain types of responsibility faster because I had small people I loved depending on me to take care of them. That fact defined my life. It also defined my marriage, as did the ways in which our families judged us, as did the struggle to bring in enough money, to make a life with so few resources.

We persevered, Bobby and I, recently celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary, 26 years together in all. Not every moment is quiet and peaceful. We still argue about bills sometimes. Or whether or not too much stuff is accumulating. (It is!) But overall, this new chapter has been quite agreeable for us – it’s an odd thing when the kids are no longer the focal point. A couple might discover they have nothing else in common. They might not know each other. They might not like each other – and without the distraction of who’s driving the kids, making dinner, planning the family’s vacations, with nothing to do except hang out, well, sometimes people end up going their separate ways. I’m relieved Bobby still makes me laugh, that I love his cooking and his happiness in his garden. That we look forward to going to bed together.

Oh, but the worry! The children may no longer be children, but I spend no less time squelching the fears of losing them. Since I brought Chelsea out of the hospital, realized how small and vulnerable my new baby was in the light of this huge, terrifying world, a part of my brain has been dedicated to making sure I never, ever forget the grip they have on my heart and all the ways in which they could be wrenched from me. Every news story involving children stokes the potential narratives. I am here in Santa Cruz because K is off to Europe for the summer between semesters. I’m thrilled for her – education and travel being things I did arrive late to – but the distance, thinking of how many miles will lie between her and us hits like something physical.

The children are part of me and now those parts are scattered. It’s impossible to feel whole. But I’ll help K find some boots and keep sending Chelsea texts and cards, and pester Nick with questions like, “Are you alive?” when he hasn’t come home by midnight. I will take K to the airport on Wednesday, hug her hard and wave goodbye as she goes through security.

I will drive away in tears, my heart asunder, make my way back up the 101 to home, where I’ll share the news that, “She’s off!” and people will smile and say, “Wow! That’s so great!” And I’ll agree. It is.

Revisiting ‘All Men’: Rape, Assault, Apathy and #YesAllWomen

It’s been almost seven years since I wrote “All Men Are Rapists – Until Proven Otherwise.” I wish my need to reference that post stemmed from celebration: “Look how far we’ve come!”

Instead, this:

A 22-year-old kid spouts the same misogynist rhetoric that my coworkers and I receive in our inboxes on a daily basis and goes on a shooting rampage with the expressed purpose of punishing women for not giving him the sexual attention he felt entitled to and we’re still told that we have no right to be scared because #NotAllMen are like that. (Jezebel)

As noted previously, I have been harassed, assaulted and date raped. (What does it say that I cannot simply say, “raped,” that I have to qualify it with “date” because I’m conditioned to accept responsibility for what happened?) I did not list every incident because what woman has time? We’re busy working, taking care of our kids, the house, our partners and, with luck, enjoying life. Why give the men who have hurt us any more of our time?

Because what happens is this:

On Friday, May 23, 2014, a man killed six people (and possibly himself). The manifesto he left behind stated he did it because women wouldn’t sleep with him. …over the weekend, the hashtag #YesAllWomen started. It was a place for women to counter the #NotAllMen distraction, and to state clearly and concisely what they actually and for real have to deal with. All the time. (Slate)

I couldn’t stop reading #YesAllWomen. Not because it was shocking – the experiences relayed via the hashtag are so common that I grew inured to them years ago. You have to. Because if you stop to think about what it means to live in a world where you can be harassed, groped, raped, stabbed, shot because you happen to be a woman, that this mere accident of birth has made you more vulnerable, more at risk, more afraid, well, sooner or later you’re going to have to demand change. And you know that change has to come in part from the men who are not harassers, gropers, rapists, killers. Your friends.

It’s a hard conversation, especially when the offender isn’t a stranger, as they usually aren’t –

“…this isn’t just about two buddies who don’t get along. In this case, the man did something predatory and disturbing.” (Jezebel)

– one I cannot fit it into a hashtagged tweet. The experiences barely fit into a blog post seven years ago. I just made a list. I could elaborate about the worst experiences, but those are the easiest ones to understand because even your most gray-area guy friends will usually agree that a guy you don’t know well forcing you to have sex is Wrong. (Small victories.) What’s harder to get across is how demoralizing the daily devaluing can be. Let me try.

Imagine this:

You have a job you like in a market bad enough that such a situation is rare. You work with mostly guys and all the women are either in secretarial positions or struggling the same as you. You and your female coworker joke one day about how little money you make and when you giggle about “$11/hour,” she suddenly gets serious and says, “You make that much?”

And it’s not really funny because you’re trying to feed three kids on that wage. Three kids you had because you and your husband seem immune to birth control and so what? You love your children as much as if you’d desperately fought to conceive them. Maybe more, because you’ve had to prove to the people who doubted you that you can be a mother.

Your dependence on that paycheck, this job, comes to define your life even more than anticipated one day when your bosses bring in a consultant to tell you and your coworkers how to do your job better. “People think I’m an asshole,” this guy says by way of introduction. “I’m cool with that.” Your bosses chuckle, then nod along as the asshole talks down to you and the other peons in the room. You do not remember feeling this disrespected at a job, ever. Not the dive bar. Not the Italian restaurant where the owner would steal your tips if you weren’t quick enough to grab them off the tables.

So it’s not exactly surprising that later, when you’re getting some coffee, the asshole squeezes past you and grabs your ass with one hand as he’s reaching for the pot with the other. It’s also not surprising that, demoralized and aware of your place, you say nothing.

Until a couple years later, when you have a better job, one with respect and a decent paycheck. At this time, you share with your former coworkers what happened and how upsetting it was. They’re taken aback. But the consultant remains one.

A couple more years and you still interact with these same people, your friends, and they mention, by the way, the asshole has been hired to work there full-time. Maybe he is good at what he does, you think, but so what? Are you worth so little that sexually harassing you is not an impediment to being hired? The answer is, and has always been, obvious.(#YesAllWomen)

Another example: You are out one night, dancing with friends when someone grabs your ass, your crotch, repeatedly, despite your pleas for him to stop. You keep whirling around, but you can’t catch him until finally you do. He’s someone you’ve known for years, considered a trusted friend. He giggles when you bust him. It’s hilarious that he’s doing this to you, out at a bar. You’re hoping no one sees. He’s never been like this, even when drunk, but now he is. You’re shocked, confused. You end the friendship and try to warn people because you’re not the only one experiencing these hands on your body against your will. But being in the role of killjoy never goes over well. Everyone just wants to have fun. They get drinks with him, joke around on Facebook.

You maintain distance, curate your social media outlets to a higher degree, still can’t help but feel hurt, angry when your friends act like nothing’s happened. You’re frustrated on your own behalf. On behalf of women everywhere. (#YesAllWomen)

Because it’s not just you. (#YesAllWomen)

It’s just how men are. Because they can be.

And you remember, in your whole life, the one set of circumstances in which guys did not get away with hassling, harassing, assaulting you. You were working in that dive bar. The bouncers were great. If any man bothered you, you could just holler and point, and the bad guy would be expelled, no questions asked. What a thing.

I can’t let go of #YesAllWomen because, to quote the Madeleine Davies‘ post again:

I hate that we’ve all experienced these things to varying degrees.

I hate that I feel lucky for not having experienced worse.

(#YesAllWomen)

On Humboldt’s vaccine paranoia and then some

The debate was about sunscreen and the stakes were high. As a parent, I asked, is it more responsible to slather chemicals onto your child’s skin or to leave them unguarded and at risk of sunburn? Skin cancer rates were only going up, after all, so who could say if sunscreen was really working. Plus, I’d read something casting doubts on sunscreen safety. When I expressed my worry, another forum member – one without children – cast me as an overly paranoid mother whose children would grow up in shadows while I dithered about safety. (She may remember it differently.)

Being responsible for the welfare of another person, especially a helpless one, is hard in about a million different ways. When I had my first child, doctors were still in the habit of doling out antibiotics at the drop of a hat. It was only my attention to “alternative” lifestyle magazines such as Vegetarian Times that gave me pause about such things. As a result, I learned the difference between viral and bacterial infections and, thus emboldened, questioned my doctor when she wanted to give my daughter amoxicillin for a cold. And guess what? Us paranoid parents turned out to be justified.

Playing on parents’ fears is big business whether it’s what to do or what not to do. I rocked a friend’s newborn to sleep recently and realized I had no idea how to put her in her crib? Are they sleeping on their backs now? Or sides? Bellies?

I thought about all this when I read Ryan Burns’ recent story on how Humboldt County is under-vaccinated. (Or, to be more precise, I thought about all this after I linked the post on my Facebook page with a semi-snarky comment about, “Oh, look, facts.” This is an attempt at a more thoughtful follow-up.)

In the course of my 24 years of parenting, I’ve experienced all kinds of advice evolve and sometimes circle back around. Food trends, for example, switched from multi-grain to gluten-free and now possibly back – and recent studies suggest gluten may be a scapegoat no longer. What to feed your family is one of the most significant decisions a parent makes and I made sure the foods in our home were of the most wholesome and nutritious variety – but if I’d had kids five years ago, I’d never have made all those pancakes. Now that the gluten-free mania has been largely discredited, maybe it’s okay to bust the griddle out once more. Who can tell? It’s a challenge to keep up, much less know which sources to place one’s faith in.

Health advice from 60 years ago is dramatically different from that of a decade ago, which is often different from what’s in the news today. The medical establishment has a spotty history. From the Victorian era, when doctors recommended morphine-containing “soothing syrups” for cranky babies to 1950s instances of doctors endorsing cigarettes as a useful way for expectant mothers to relax to continuing to overprescribe antibiotics, it’s obvious that a medical degree is no guarantee of infallibility. Add in the well-documented greed of large pharmaceutical companies and no wonder parents are skeptical about injecting their babies with compounds beyond their understanding.

But in some cases, the skepticism has swung beyond the science. Now, I admit, I wasn’t swayed by the chicken pox vaccine. I was initially suspicious of the HPV vaccine because it was new and because our health care system is so jacked up that it makes trusting companies involved in it impossible. To not question belies a naivety no parent wants to be guilty of. But when it comes to whooping cough, polio, measles? Those are awful diseases that we have no reason to allow back into circulation. Questioning vaccines, other health advice, everything, is justified – we owe it to our kids to make the most informed decisions possible. Ultimately, the hope is, those decisions will be the right ones, and by “right,” I mean the ones most rooted in truly accurate facts. Good luck, parents of the world.

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