Feb 20, 2014

Five, Six, Seven, Eight: How I Learned To Fornicate

(I originally wrote this piece to read at Unchaste Readers - Women Reading Their Minds in Portland, and later adapted it for publication on The Manifest-Station.)

I was five years old. It was a white hot summer in upstate New York, and I was playing with a neighbor kid, Maureen Hammill. We crouched on the curb of my family’s big corner lot and poked at the tar bubbling up on the street. Our fathers talked about the Dutch Elm Disease that was taking the trees in the neighborhood, block by block. I sat back on the grass and crisscrossed my skinny legs, trying to wipe tar off my white sneakers. Mr. Hammill looked down at me and said, “Well, aren’t you pretty!” I had never thought of myself as pretty or ugly or anything in between, but I smiled like crazy at that compliment.

Later that afternoon, my father shared this with my mother as she scrubbed sticky tar off my fingers. She said, “For God’s sake. What’s the matter with him?” She sounded angry at Mr. Hammill, but she glared at me and scrubbed harder.

I would hear, “Well, aren’t you pretty!” well into my teen years. My father said it in a lilting voice, to tease me, or to irritate my mother. By then I wondered why it bothered her. In her eyes I often saw Mr. Hammill as a leering, dirty old man, although I didn’t remember him that way. If she thought he was creepy all those years ago, she did nothing to keep me away from him. Maybe she thought he was teasing me, or lying. She never said I was pretty. She criticized my stringy hair, my close-set eyes, my legs that weren’t so skinny anymore. Maybe my father kept it alive for so long to soften her criticism, to tell me I was pretty without owning the words and making my mother angry at him, too.

I was six years old. My older brother Ed and I were playing with Maureen and her older brother Timmy in the Hammill’s basement. Timmy and I had decided to get married when we grew up. That day, he tugged me aside and told me that babies were made when a man stuck his penis into a woman’s privates and peed. I was so horrified, I told my brother and made him promise not to say a word to our parents. In under an hour my mother stood over me in my room, demanding I repeat exactly what Timmy had said. Once I blurted it out, she went downstairs and called Mrs. Hammill. She yelled at her for a long time, referring to Timmy as, “That little shit!”

I expected my mother to tell me that Timmy was lying, that having babies didn’t involve anything as disgusting as penises, but we never talked about it again. I decided then that Timmy and I would not be having children when we got married. If we got married. Our future together wasn’t looking so good.

My mother and I would never have the talk, the one where she was supposed to tell me that sex wasn’t disgusting and that it wasn’t just for making babies, either. I learned how sex might make me feel good from smutty books I snuck from my parents’ bookshelves and dirty magazines I found in my brother’s bedroom. I learned how sex might make me pregnant in high school health class. But without any real life context, sex was mostly just something that upset my mother.

Sex was naughty, and the older I got, the more appealing that became. For most of my life, I enjoyed sex only if I believed I was doing something dirty. I needed at least one of the following criteria: an inappropriate partner; a public, “what if someone sees us?” venue; or a bit of kink I’d never tried before. Over the years I pushed those boundaries hard.

I was seven years old. Having reached the “age of reason” in the opinion of the Catholic church, I was gearing up for my first confession. I worried about it for weeks beforehand because I didn’t know what to confess. I never stole candy or pulled the legs off of ants. Sometimes in bed at night I put my hand in my underpants. My body was fascinating to me, especially my bits and pieces. My mother saw me doing it once and told me to knock it off, so it was likely sinful. But I couldn’t confess my embarrassing touching secret to a Catholic priest of all people. And what if my mother found out? She couldn’t blame this on any of the Hammills. When I knelt in the dark, musty confessional, I panicked and said, “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. I took three cookies out of the cookie jar and lied to my mother about it.” We didn’t even have a cookie jar. I made that shit up on the spot.

The story of the cookies I never took would be my first and last confession, which was probably best for my immortal soul. When my family left New York for northeast Washington, my mother left the Catholic church. I never again had to choose whether it was scarier to lie to a priest than to chance making my mother angry, although I suspect that choice would not have changed.

I was eight years old. Men came to our house with boxes labeled “Mayflower” and started to pack our things. One of them looked like Freddie Prinze from Chico and the Man. He had a shy smile and he smelled of damp earth and musky flowers. I shadowed him, darting close enough to catch his scent and then giggling as I ran away. I ignored my mother when she scowled and shook her head. I ignored her when she said he was on the clock and I should let him work. I vied for his attention, his smile a thrill, his smell with me in bed at night. After three days of this, I didn’t care about my parents’ promise that we would have horses in Washington. I didn’t want to go. When my mother told me that Musky Flower Moving Guy wouldn’t be driving the truck, that I wouldn’t see him on the other side of the country, I ran to my bedroom and cried.

I would carry his scent with me during the four-day drive to Washington. When I started third grade, I had imaginary conversations with Musky Flower Moving Guy. He comforted me until I made friends. For years I was drawn to older men with dark hair and mustaches. I never asked if they happened to have empty moving boxes we could play with.

When we left upstate New York, we had lost every towering Elm tree that shaded our yard. All that remained were 13 tall, naked trunks that my father never cut down. I had lost something, too, something intangible yet protective like shade, but invisible. I had shed a layer of innocence, that carefree childhood oblivion that let me feel okay in the world.

My mother could have smiled when she heard that Mr. Hammill called me pretty, or, if she saw a teachable moment, she could have told me it was more important to be smart and kind. She might have assured me that Timmy’s version of baby-making was a bit shaky, that one day I would find the idea less disgusting, natural even. She could have told me that touching myself was fine if I did it in private. She could have giggled with me, instead of at me, about my crush on Musky Flower Moving Guy.

The conversations I didn’t have with my mother left me vulnerable in a confusing world where being pretty could be sexualized, and sexuality could be considered dirty. My mother’s views of sexuality and the physical body were informed by Catholic doctrine, which teaches that sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, rather than purposes of procreation. Yet the catechism also teaches that everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept their sexual identity. Maybe my mother, like many Catholic parents, didn’t know where to begin teaching a sexually precocious little girl how to properly embrace her sexuality.

From the time I was eight to eighteen, Second Wave Feminism was in full swing, but not on my radar. I knew nothing of objectification or sex-positivity. What I knew was that there was something wrong with wanting to be a pretty girl. There was something wrong with talking about how women got pregnant. There was something wrong with exploring my own body. There was something wrong with having a crush on a cute man.

There was something wrong with me.

That something would live inside me for almost 40 years. I didn’t invite it in, but I let it stay, dimly aware of how it warped most of my sexual experiences with men, and a few women. Holding tight to being a dirty girl was less a choice than a “fuck you” to all I didn’t know about how to make sex right instead of wrong. When I finally realized, accepted, believed, that there was nothing wrong with sexuality, that there had never been anything wrong with me, I evicted the ghost of that “something” and took back my body, my sexuality.

My need for naughty had been more limiting than freeing. Naughty sex is still fun, but so is sex that is urgent or lazy, mad or sweet, funny or intense, sex that wakes me up in the morning or helps me go to sleep at night. Married sex.

After my family’s cross-country move put the kibosh on my already tenuous engagement to Timmy Hammill, my first boyfriend was Tommy Doyle. He asked me to go steady in fourth grade. He even gave me a ring. He was a nice boy who grew into a nice man, a man with whom I’ve shared secrets, but never sex. He would have been the perfectly inappropriate partner—my friend, Father Tom Doyle, a Catholic priest.

Nov 9, 2013

I'm A Bad Addict

I recently wrote an essay on addiction. It ended up being more somber and science-y than intended, because I sometimes take myself quite seriously when writing for someone else. The gist of it, if you're not one of the few dozen people who read it, is that there is a difference between bad habits and true addictions. I am, it turns out, a failure as an addict, because rarely have I indulged in substance abuse and experienced physical dependence at the same time. I remain ambivalent about this.

So I give you a list of bad habits to which I have mistakenly considered myself addicted over the years. In no particular order of chronology, severity, or significance:
  • Diet Coke (my precious)
  • cigarettes (I'm gross. Whatever.)
  • lip balm (Is this bad?)
  • Afrin (yes, the nose spray)
  • alcohol (No comment.)
  • Bejeweled 3
  • validation (Everyone needs this, right?)
  • Vicodin (cold turkey, bitches)
  • gossip (deliciously naughty)
  • caffeine (I'm okay with this one.)
  • clonazepam (and this one...)
  • oversharing (oops)
  • X-Files reruns (I want to believe.)
  • toxic relationships (so over that shit)
  • spicy cheese grits (mmm...)
  • procrastination (It's happening right now.)
  • the internet (See above.)
I'm still working on ditching many of these. Not surprisingly, they're the ones that have been with me the longest.

On a positive note, I have some good habits to balance my failed addictions:
  • flossing (daily)
  • admitting I'm wrong (also daily)
  • napping (ditto)

Why are bad habits easier to slip into than good ones? Why don't I crave raw fruits and vegetables instead of carbs drowned in melted cheese? Why isn't exercise as tempting as, you know, not exercising?

I need adult supervision, someone following me around asking, "Does that seem like a good idea, Laurel, or a really, really bad idea?" But apparently I'm the grown up around here. I don't know how this happened.

I'm going to take a nap.

Nov 7, 2013

Poorly Handled Conversations With My Daughter


"Mommy, do I look sexy?" She assumes a hip-thrust, arms akimbo pose.


"Am I sexy?"

"Do you know what sexy means?"

"I don't know. Like, pretty?"

"Sort of. Do you know what sex is?"


Awkward silence.

"Then don't worry about it. You're eight. Eight-year-old girls should not look sexy."

She makes a huffing noise and walks away.


"I saw a word on the bathroom wall at school."

"What was it?"

She hesitates. "I don't want to tell you."

"You tell me all the other words you see."

"It was F-A-" She starts to say "G."

"Okay! I get it!"

"Is that a swear word?"

"That's worse than a swear word. 'Bitch' is a swear word. That's a hate word."

"Hate is an ugly word." (She parrots me.)

"Yes, and hate words are worse than ugly words or swear words. If I ever hear you use that word—"

"I won't! Jeez, Mom. I was just telling you I saw it."

She walks off and I call after her, "Thanks for telling me, honey!"


"What's wrong, Mommy?"

"Nothing. I just have cramps." (I'm lying in bed, moaning.)

"What are cramps?"

"I get cramps when I have my period."

"What's a period?"

"Once a month, women bleed for a few days."

"From where?"

"From our privates." She looks horrified.

"I don't ever want to get a period."

"Someday you'll want to. Trust me."

"But I won't be able to go swimming!"

"Of course you will. You can use a tampon."

"What's a tampon?"

"It's like a... oh god, can we talk about this later? Like in a few years?"

"I am never going to get a period."

She runs from the room.

Oct 7, 2013

A Quick Primer On Empathy, or Empathy 101

I sometimes wonder if some people are judgmental because they lack certain life experiences, and are therefore incapable of imagining what other people's struggles feel like. Actually, I don't wonder that at all. I'm certain of it. So I offer the following list of unpleasantries that everyone should suffer at least once in their lifetime, in the interest of increasing empathy and becoming better people. I realize this list is incomplete and horribly biased toward my own stuff. And I should confess that this post is, in part, a reactive rant inspired by a rude comment on my essay about depression on Everyday Feminism. Whatever. I'm okay with that.

When you've endured each of these for a minimum of one or two hours, feel free to judge others:

  • Labor (the childbearing kind, not manual)
  • A debilitating migraine (as if there is any other kind)
  • Severe depression (or any mental illness, really)
  • Prejudice (being the target of racism, sexism, homophobia)
  • Chronic pain (not visible to others)
  • Poverty (or even the specter of being one crisis away from losing everything)
  • Loneliness (not just feeling alone, but having literally no one to reach out to)
  • Physical withdrawal (from prescription drugs, OTC drugs, street drugs, alcohol, cigarettes)
  • Failure (of the big, humiliating, life-changing nature)
  • Fear of losing a loved one (in a discrete, immediate sense)
  • Spending time in a psych ward (yup, been there)
  • Being kicked in the balls (for the men out there)
  • Stupidity (throwing this in here because it seems only fair)

I believe there are traumas no one should ever have to experience: physical or sexual abuse, the death of a child, war, famine, manmade or natural disasters—the list goes on. These are easy to empathize with, perhaps because they seem so distant and unlikely to affect us personally.

So, what did I miss? What would you add to this list?

UPDATE: Considering the thoughtful comments (below), I stand corrected. Don't judge. Just don't. It's not nice.

Sep 7, 2013

It's Not Always Me

I think I'm addicted to introspection. This may be a more benign addiction than meth or porn or skin-picking (yes, dermatillomania is a thing). Still, I spend hours picking at scabs of conflicts past and present, wondering what I could have done differently and how I might handle things more gracefully in the future. Because I prefer to avoid being hurt, or hurting others, I practice what therapists call "identifying my role" in times of interpersonal strife. I have become really good at identifying my role when shit goes down.

I embrace the truism that you can't control how other people behave, only how you react. Or maybe it's that you can't change other people; you can only change yourself. Probably both. Whatever. Either way, when I'm struggling in a difficult relationship, I feel compelled to do a bunch of messy internal work to figure out how I should react differently to the other person. I examine how my own issues could be contributing to the discord.

So it looks something like this: my reactivity + my issues = my role in conflicts.

This exercise provides a sense of self-awareness and empowerment, two things of which I am very fond. But while I have wrapped my brain firmly around the fact that I cannot control or change others' behavior, I still believe that changing my own will make difficult relationships easier, that if I take enough responsibility for my shit, the relationship will succeed.

Of course it doesn't always work that way. And then I feel sad and guilty and I go back to digging around my psyche, examining my shit. I even revisit relationships that ended years ago, excavating the ruins in search of the moments when I could have done more, or less, or better. Sometimes mutual friends or family members pressure me to make things right. Maybe I listen to them and give it a shot. Or maybe I do nothing because they don't know the whole story and that's really annoying.

Lately I've begun to see how this fuckery can be damaging, not just to relationships but to my emotional well-being. Instead of nurturing old friendships or fostering new ones, I waste time holding on to people who don't want to be held, providing life-support to relationships that were never healthy. This little epiphany materialized when I realized that people sometimes behave like assholes without me playing a role in it.

Some people behave like assholes for one simple reason: They're just assholes.

Family and friends, people we love and feel closest to, occasionally say or do hurtful things. I've hurt people, both unwittingly and deliberately. No one waltzes through life shiny and happy all the time. When I know I've behaved badly, I do what I can to make it right. When I've been hurt, I may talk about it or I may let it go.

If I choose the uncomfortable talky scenario, I hope to hear an expression of regret—not a bullshit nonpology like, "I'm sorry you feel that way," but an admission that they made a mistake and they feel really crappy about it. No excuses or rationalizations. I know this is possible because I have a history of unshiny moments and I know how liberating it is to say, "I was wrong. I shouldn't have done that. I'm so sorry."

The relationships I most appreciate are those that weather occasional tension, or even full-on blowouts. These are people I know I can trust. We fuck up and it's okay because it's an anomaly. We apologize and we move on and we hope we are stronger for it.

It's okay to occasionally behave like an asshole if you regret it and offer a real apology.

When the anomaly becomes a pattern and I find myself in a cycle of hurt with someone I love, my mind executes an accelerated infinite loop, pinging from pain to anger to fear to confusion to guilt to hey look a squirrel! until my entire emotional system becomes unresponsive. (My brain is a poorly coded computer program.) I might go into offense mode to make sure the person is still paying attention, but eventually I start looking for my role so I can make everything okay again.

My success rate might be higher if my counterparts went through a similar process. But it turns out not everyone wants to work on strained relationships. Not everyone cares to admit they've made mistakes that call for an apology. Not everyone feels compelled to identify their role in the unpleasantness, much less cop to having one.

In the past, I spent wasted lots of time exploring my "trust issues." After years of trying to figure out why I was so "triggered" by dishonesty, I had one of those aha! moments, followed by a facepalm. I don't have trust issues, nor am I triggered by deception. I just don't like being lied to.

I also get upset when someone lashes out and then plays the victim when I try to talk about it. There is no give and take or rational discussion, just anger and resentment. Sure, I can be a reactive jackass and make things worse for a while, but I assume that talking it out will bring resolution.

For some people, however, the only acceptable resolution is a one-sided apology, even if they were the aggressor. I've offered too many bullshit apologies in the interest of maintaining big, important relationships. I've told myself that a scary relationship was better than no relationship at all. I was wrong.

Some people aren't worth my energy because I will never be able to please them.

People who hold on to too much anger tend to lash out unexpectedly. They hold others to standards of behavior that are constantly shifting, but are always higher than what they expect of themselves. When crossed, they don't accept an apology and move on. They file the infraction away for future reference. They hold grudges. These people are toxic, and changing my reactions or behavior is a waste of time. I am not "triggered" by them, either. I just don't like self-absorbed assholes.

I don't want toxic people in my life. They exhaust me. More important, I absorb their negativity and start acting like an asshole myself. I've seen it happen during difficult times in the last few years, and I've behaved in ways of which I am not proud. Enough. I've decided the only way to put my introspection to good use is to make positive changes. I want to surround myself with people who have compassion and integrity, people who are not just self-aware, but also interested in personal growth.

Self-awareness can be used as an excuse or it can be used to make positive changes.

If I start to feel as if I'm doing all the work in a relationship, or constantly apologizing for shit I didn't do, it's time to let go. I no longer need to muck around in my head and search for responsibility where there is none. It's not always about me and my "role." Sometimes relationships fail, and I need to accept that and move the fuck on.

In conclusion, I offer this pretty Venn diagram to illustrate my new and improved mentality around relationships.

Jul 26, 2013

Is Depression The New Narcissism?

Yesterday I came across the following morsel of horseshit in the comments section of this lovely essay written by a woman who feels lost in her first year of motherhood:

"Depression is massively narcissistic."

Beg your pardon? I wanted to jump into my computer and bitch-slap the asshole who put that out into the world. Since I have yet to master that much-needed superpower, I settled for a nice, calm reply instead. But I can't stop thinking about the ignorance and wrongness and what-the-fuckness of that statement.

What I wanted to say, what I was screaming in my head, was much less elegant and would not have contributed to the conversation. So I'll say it here:

"Oh my god you ignorant fuck! Depression is a goddamn disease, not a product of narcissism! Why you gotta hate all over someone else's suffering?"

Only someone who has never lived through real depression would say something so stupid and cruel, especially to the mother of a 10-month-old baby. While I'm sure some narcissists suffer from depression, not all depressed people are narcissists. Yeah, I just wrote that. Because apparently it still needs to be said.

One of my favorite descriptions of depression is this hilarious and brilliant post on the comic/blog Hyperbole and a Half. (Read it, yo.) Still, I suspect that the people most able to relate to it are those who have been there. In fact, I wonder if anyone who hasn't been through at least one major depressive episode even finished reading it.

I'm going to explain what depression is like based on my own experience. Yes, lots of people have done this in many creative and convincing ways, but I'm going to make it simple and short so that even the idiot who believes depression is narcissistic can understand it. I'm going to walk you through it, and ask you to try to imagine what the spiral feels like. Please stay with me.

One day you start feeling a little sad but don't understand why. Your life is great! You have all the stuff that's supposed to make you happy but you feel sad instead. You might feel a little guilty about being sad because of the starving children in Africa. Maybe you tell yourself it's just a phase, that Mercury is in retrograde or some such shit.

But it isn't a phase. After a few weeks you don't feel just a little sad anymore. You're crying over your coffee or in a bathroom stall at work or during sex. Now you feel sad, guilty, and embarrassed because you can't hide your sadness anymore, and you don't like crying in front of your coffee. You love your coffee and it makes you happy and you don't want it to think otherwise.

At this point, you can still pretend to be normal when you're at work or out with friends or yelling at your kids. These things probably even make you feel better for a while. They're exhausting and you might need to curl into the fetal position and nap more often than you'd like, but you can still fake it when you have to. You can still function.

A few weeks later you stop going out with friends and yelling at your kids because you don't have the energy to fake it. Nothing brings you joy or makes you feel better for even a little while. You still go to work, but you can't focus and your boss is starting to look at you funny. Now you're sad, guilty, embarrassed, and scared, because you don't want to lose your friends or your kids or your job.

You finally summon the courage to tell your partner that you're in a funk, that you might be depressed or something. Your partner nods and makes comforting noises and for a few minutes you think they get it. Then they say, "Are you gonna mow the lawn soon? That grass is out of control." You realize they don't get it. Now you feel sad, guilty, embarrassed, scared, and alone. And that's perfectly rational because you're the one who can't get your shit together. You are alone in your own depression.

One morning you wake up and can't get out of bed because you can't imagine going through another day with all those feelings slamming into each other in your head. You call your boss and say you have a summer flu. You tell your partner that, too. And then you stay in bed and feel relieved that you don't have to fake it. You tell yourself you just need sleep, a lot of sleep, and then you'll be okay again.

But you don't magically become okay again. The longer you stay in bed, the more you want to stay in bed. Bed is a safe place because you've surrendered, you've given up faking it and you no longer have to deal with anyone. Between dozing and staring at your arm hair (because you're too fucked up to watch TV or read a book), all that sadness, guilt, embarrassment, fear, and aloneness start to seem less defined.

Those feeling don't go away, though. Instead, they start morphing into one big feeling: despair. You realize that something is really, really wrong with you. You wonder if you'll ever be okay again. You wonder if you even want to be okay again. Life seems like so much work, more work than you can imagine doing, ever.

Finally, after a time, the feeling of despair goes away and you feel nothing. You look back with morbid nostalgia on the sadness, guilt, embarrassment, fear, aloneness, and even despair. You crave sleep because in dreams you feel something.

This is the heart of depression: a shitload of nothing.

You can't sleep, so you root around in the medicine cabinet and find some old Ambien. You take one and you finally sleep, for a while. When you wake up you take another, and another. You start counting the pills left in the bottle and wondering if you should just take them all and sleep forever. You tell yourself your partner, your kids, your friends, and your coworkers would be better off without you.

If you're lucky, you see the insanity in this line of thinking. You ask for help, which feels like the hardest thing you've ever done. Talking to your partner (if they're still around), finding a doctor, even picking up the phone and dialing a number, seem like impossible obstacles. Everything is an impossible obstacle. But you do it anyway because the alternative is either more nothing, or real and final nothing.

And then you begin doing all the work, the hard-as-fuck work, that will allow you to feel something, anything, that makes you want to live. You have some good days but mostly bad. If you keep working, the good days come more frequently.

And then you know what happens once you feel like yourself again? You live the rest of your life with the knowledge that depression is a disease, and while you might be in remission, it could sneak up on you again. And if it does, you'll go through the whole fucking spiral again, but this time maybe you'll recognize the signs and get help before you end up with nothing.

That's what depression is for many people. It is not a narcissistic behavior. It's not a behavior at all.

You can't choose how to behave when you feel nothing inside.

Jun 26, 2013

My Relationship With Drama

I recently joked to a friend that everyone insists they hate dramaunless it's their own, and then it's okay. I was only half-kidding, and as soon as the words were out there, I realized I'm no different. I'm not some special snowflake who avoids drama, whether it's someone else's or my own. I sometimes grow genuinely tired of drama, but if I'm honest with myself (something I allow as infrequently as possible), I have to admit that I'm usually comfortable with it. Maybe I attract it. Maybe I even thrive on it.

I've been thinking lately about drama and boundaries and how the two are connected. Having been through a fairly tumultuous childhood with frequent conflicts and nonexistent boundaries, I'm primed to participate in friends' crises willingly, even enthusiastically. In these moments, I lose sight of how healthy boundaries might be far more helpful than burrowing into others' private lives. Even if I've been invited in, I don't need to become so personally invested.

In the context of platonic relationships, too much personal investment is costly and rarely pays off. While I love my friends and want to help when they are struggling, I'm beginning to realize that I needn't compromise my boundaries or theirs. I don't need to question every detail, or act all wise, or get all bossypants on them. I'm not very wise, for one thing. More important, that shit does nothing but hurt everyone involved. If a friend ends up making a choice I adamantly disagreed with during a crisis ("Don't take that crappy job!" or "Don't send that angry email!"), our friendship is likely to be pretty fucking awkward. At least for a while, and possibly forever.

Yet I don't want to swing to the other extremebeing distant or offering banal platitudes. Here is where I struggle to find that sweet spot between too much and too little personal investment. I'd like to be able to voice my opinions in a constructive way (as I wrote here), to be open and honest but also supportive and accepting.

Because I'm all grown up and I don't want to remain stuck in an unhealthy pattern that I've recognized, and now written about, I'm going to start working on that, pronto. I'll let you know how it goes.

An aside: I create my own personal mini-dramas, too. My family is leaving tomorrow for Minnesota, and rather than doing laundry and paying bills and thinking about packing (yes, just thinking), I'm writing this blog post. While I like to believe I function with grace under pressure, the reality is that last time we flew anywhere I was folding damp clothes into a suitcase while the taxi waited in the driveway. I have issues, man.

Apr 26, 2013


A list of some of the worst advice I've received in my 45 years. I like to think much of it was well-intentioned, but I suspect there was a lot of projecting going on. Most of these gems came from one or both of my parents, and a few from well-meaning friends.

Photo courtesy of the internets
1. "Fun is not a worthwhile pursuit."
Honestly, I never really believed this. Still, it's stupid advice.

2. "Expect the worst and hope for the best."
I fell hard for this one, and spent most of my childhood and adult life waiting for something awful to happen. I still have difficulty just being happy.

3. "Brad will never change."
Okay, this was good advice at the time, but it still turned out to be wrong. I love my girlfriends!

4. "Never quit a steady job, no matter what."
This, just before I took a six-month sabbatical and returned to my previous employer as a consultant, billing four times what I was paid before.

5. "Don't trust anyone. Not your realtor, not your best friend, not even your husband."
Wow. Just... wow. Not a great way to experience intimacy. Enough said.

6. "If you have to ask for help, it's not the same as if someone offers."
I spent so many years waiting for people to read my mind. That didn't work very well, and when I finally learned to ask for help, it was every bit as good—maybe better—than when people offered. It gave me a sense of control over my needs, and made it easier for me to help others who were brave enough to ask.

7. "You could manage your depression with diet and exercise, you know."
I am not exaggerating when I say I would be dead if it weren't for antidepressants. And yes, I have tried EVERYTHING ELSE, including talk therapy, diet and exercise, homeopathic crap, acupuncture, hypnosis, meditation, and a smelly shaman I met in Guatemala. (Okay, I made up that last one.) To those with so little understanding of chronic, clinical depression, I say: lucky you! And, you know, don't speak.

8. "Don't get a dog. You'll lose it someday and it will break your heart. It's not worth it."
I got my first dog when I was in college. She was a year old, and we were together 15 more years. She died in my arms and it broke my heart more than I ever imagined possible. But it was worth it, and I will do it again and again and again until the day I die. Dogs rule.

9. "Save the best for last."
What does this horrible cliché even mean? If I save the best for last, I'll be enjoying the shit out of all that mediocre stuff until... when? The end of the meal? Retirement?

10. "I don't think you should bother taking calculus again. You passed."
Oh, freshman year of college. While a D- is a passing grade, I should have taken that class again if only to prove to myself that I could do better. Going to class might have been a good start. Studying earlier than the night before the exam would have helped. Most important, I should have taken college more seriously from the start, an expensive lesson in priorities.

What badvice have you received?

Jan 27, 2013

Zeus - The Proust Questionnaire

The Fitty Pound Pittie digs deep into his psyche, instead of the backyard, and horks up some personal morsels.

What is your current state of mind?

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Snuggling with my humans.

What is your greatest fear? 
Being left alone.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Um, Lassie?

Which living person do you most admire?
The man human. He’s the alpha. I think that means the boss.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
What does deplore mean? (dislike) Oh. Well, I guess sometimes I don’t feel so smart.

What is the trait you most deplore in others? 
What does deplore mean? (DISLIKE) Right. I don’t like mean dogs. Or mean people. You sound a little snippy right now, come to think of it.

What is it that you most dislike?
Being left alone. Didn’t you already ask me that?

What is your greatest extravagance?
When my humans let me snuggle in bed with them.

What do you most value in your friends? 
My dog friends? (whatever) A nice smelling butt. 

What is your favorite journey?
Riding in the car. Duh.

What is your most treasured possession? 
My soccer ball. If I stick my nose in the hole I chewed and then breathe really hard, the little blond girl laughs and says I sound like Darth… something.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Not eating the other dog’s food. I mean, it’s just sitting there.

On what occasion do you lie?
Huh? I lie down when I’m tired. Stupid question. 

Which living person do you most despise? 
The mailman!

What or who is the greatest love of your life? 
The little blond girl. She smells nice and scratches my tummy and feeds me and lets me outside.

When and where were you happiest? 
Snuggling with my humans! You keep asking me that, too.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? 
I wish I could stop chasing cats and squirrels. The lady human says, “Fucking relax already!” but I really, really can’t help it.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? 
I learned the whole obstacle course in the back yard!

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be? 
The little blond girl would be here all the time

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? 
Being left alone! Why do you keep asking me that?

What is your favorite occupation? 
Occupation? (job) Oh. I bark when people walk past the house.

What is your most marked characteristic? 
I have a big brown spot on my butt.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction? 
Benji. He seems super smart, especially when he steals those sausages. Mmm, sausages. I'm hungry.

How would you like to die? 
DIE??? WHA-- (never mind)

What is your motto? 
Hmm. I guess it's “What about love?” You know, from that Heart song? Are we done yet? I'm super hungry.

Dec 30, 2012

Koyaanisqatsi (Life Out of Balance)

A few weeks ago I was at my wits' end with my daughter, and I vented to an online group of women friends. I needed to know, as mothers often do, whether my child’s behavior was alarming or simply annoying but age-appropriate. My ladies came through for me with empathy, insight, and solid advice, and my parenting crisis passed−but not before I spent a day questioning why I ever believed I could be a good mother.

I have never found parenting easy or intuitive. Dealing with the good and the bad, reconciling enjoyment and exasperation, was more difficult than I expected. When Grace was four or five, I mentioned this to a friend, who told me she believed it was her responsibility as a mother to be affected by her child, positively and negatively. I took that to heart, because she is a smart woman, a psychologist who counsels college students, as well as a thoughtful, deliberate mother. I decided to stop trying to tune out my child’s tantrums. Instead, I let myself feel my frustration, anger, and helplessness, to sit with those feelings and process them and let them go. In doing so, I was also able to feel empathy, something that was missing before, and I began to engage with my daughter on her own level, or closer to it. We were better after that. I was a better mother and she was a happier kid. I thought it was over.

It wasn’t over, of course. At seven, she still goes through phases, or relapses, of raging for reasons I only occasionally understand. Now, however, she’s more articulate and persistent, and both of us have bigger feelings around these conflicts. If I let myself feel whatever emotions arise every time she throws a tantrum, I would be too overwhelmed to find any empathy. So I wonder how much I should take in, when every squeak of protest or cry of discontent cannot be given full attention.

I’ve adopted a triage approach. If she’s frustrated by homework and throws her pencil and crumples her assignment, I try to work through to empathy as quickly as possible. If she hits the dog and refuses to put on her shoes because there isn’t time to put her hair in a ponytail before school, I honestly don’t care right in that moment. Later, I might wonder if something else was going on with her that I missed, some deep fear or insecurity that I don’t love her because I said no to what probably seemed to her a fairly small request. And that’s where my friends come to my rescue and assure me she isn’t a sociopath, that kids her age don’t differentiate between big crises and small ones the way adults do.

Still, I keep searching for ways to prevent the next meltdown.

I awoke two weeks ago to news of the Connecticut elementary school shooting. Grace wasn’t home, so I did what I suspect many people did that day: I sat in front of the TV, crying. From initial news coverage to a late night interview with one traumatized, exhausted little girl, I took it all in, even though it was too much to take in. My imagination led me to awful places: the kids’ last moments of terror; the scene that must have greeted the first responders; the parents who weren’t allowed to see their children’s bodies. I wallowed in my sadness and anger and crazy helplessness, and I never tried to tune it out or look away. To do so would have been selfish, I thought, and disrespectful to those who had lost loved ones.

I wanted to hug my daughter and tell her I love her and snuggle on the couch watching endless episodes of her current favorite TV series. I wanted to listen to her chatter through each show and watch her dance to the music at the beginning and end. I wanted to be present and engaged−to show her, rather than tell her, that she is more important than work or Words with Friends or any other distractions. More than that, I wanted to erase all the times I felt her anger hadn’t warranted my empathy, like that morning I didn’t care she wanted a ponytail. Because what if that had been the last time I saw her?

I don’t usually sink so completely into tragedies, yet there have been a few times I’ve spent days watching the news, unable to look away: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina (when Grace was just a month old), the 2011 Norway shooting. I come away from these immersions shaken, disoriented, and discouraged. I am most affected by disasters that involve human depravity or indifference. I cry over natural disasters, too (the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster), but I’m more likely to succumb to news of catastrophes that might have been prevented, those where someone is to blame. They allow me to be simultaneously horrified and angry, which is more comfortable than being just horrified. But I always wonder how much horror is the right amount to take in, how much anger I should hold.

And, along with everyone else, I wonder how we can prevent the next tragedy.

The first time I left the house after 9/11, I went grocery shopping. I felt connected to everyone around me, even though I didn’t know them. It seemed we all had the same expression, the same rhythm to our movements. No one was rushing around with self-importance. Strangers made eye contact and tried to smile at each other. I was temporarily comforted by a sense of community based on grief, fear, and maybe a little gratitude that we were okay. I hadn’t felt lucky until I went out into the world and felt that loose connection with strangers.

Some people are able to feel real gratitude for what they have, not because they live in a bubble of ignorance or compare their lives to those less fortunate, but because they empathize with those who have very little, or who have lost everything. They feel others’ pain without letting that pain overwhelm them. They are happy in their own lives, and they go out into the world and try to change what they can. These people, I believe, are good at appreciating the balance between ugliness and beauty in the world, between destruction and rebirth. I admire these people. I aspire to be one of them. For me, however, it has become too easy to focus on the tragedies, the injustices, the destructive nature of humans. I know how lucky I am in my own life, but I’m weighed down by all that is wrong outside, in the world, because I rarely look for what is beautiful there.

For now, I long to shield Grace from the worst of the world, but still help her to appreciate her place in it. She’s too young now, but eventually I want her to learn how much to take in and how to balance the bad with the good. I remember my friend’s advice and think how much healthier it feels to be affected by my child, both negatively and positively. If I could do the same on a much larger scale−if I could seek out beauty in the world to temper the cruelty−I might be able to teach Grace to do the same.

A few nights after the Sandy Hook shooting, my husband and I went to a Hanukkah party. It was the first time I’d left the house, and I was still raw. I planned to stay only briefly, but what I found there, among good friends and their families, was a completely different sense of community than what I experienced with the strangers in the grocery store after 9/11. I hugged my friends hard and told them I loved them. And then I realized I had been selfish to consider staying at home, wallowing alone. We needed each other and needed to celebrate the holidays and our friendships so we could cope with the shock we’d all been feeling. Just as my friends and I have always helped each other muddle through parenting crises by sharing our experiences, we helped each other that night by sharing the pain of the past few days, along with love and laughter and a lot of food and wine.

We need to share all of these things because we will never prevent the next tragedy, any more than I will find a way to prevent Grace’s next tantrum.

Years ago I was in Crested Butte with a group of people celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday. We were up late, talking and sipping excellent tequila. At one point, the birthday man remarked (and I’m paraphrasing here), “When you get right down to it, the only thing that really matters is love.” It was one of those moments I will always remember, because it was honest and simple, yet profound. Connecting with those we love is the true salve for a world of beauty marred by horror, joy tainted by suffering, and, of course, happy childhoods peppered with tantrums. It’s not just about taking in the ugliness and the beauty, but sharing both with people we love.

I should watch this movie at least once a month.


Nov 16, 2012

An Open Letter to the Makers of Bejeweled 3

Dear PopCap Games,

Last Christmas I purchased Bejeweled 3. According to the label, this family-friendly video game was perfect for my six-year-old daughter! In an attempt to improve her fine motor skills and dispute her teacher’s claim that she was unable to count by groups, I showed my little angel how to use the controller to move the jewels into vertical or horizontal rows of three. I stood in front of the TV, pointing and saying, “See, honey? Here are two pink triangles next to each other. Do you see another pink triangle you could move to line up with them?” She ended up throwing down the controller and screaming, “I hate this stupid game!” Poor dear.

During our second session, I was proud to hear her squeal, “I leveled!” I mean, what parent doesn’t long to hear their kid spout gaming lingo? I fantasized about a time when I might sit her in front of the TV for hours so I could get shit done, the game’s soothing music in the background. But my child’s enthusiasm was short-lived, and after a few more half-assed attempts she declared, “This game is stupid and boring and I hate it!” Whatever. Go fuck up some more math homework.

My husband and I began to play after the little quitter went to bed. Instead of dialog from Law & Order reruns, our home echoed with cries of “Four” or “Cube!” (I finally asked him to stop yelling at me, as I’m a bit tightly wound and easily startled.) He, a gaming veteran, soon shunned the Classic game in favor of the Lightning round. And after I’d had enough of the “No More Moves” bullshit, which always came out of nowhere and yanked me from my Zen-like focus on colors and shapes, I joined him in the speedier version.

I sucked, but I persevered. I’m no quitter. No, I’m competitive, so I spent each evening drinking and trying to match my husband’s high score. We’d take turns. As I played, tense and twitching and cursing like a sailor, he’d glance up occasionally and say, “Nice game, baby,”—his way of reminding me I was not a threat. Passive-aggressive asshole.

That voiceover that sounds like some creepy dude about to jizz in his pants (“Good. Awesome! Excellent! Extraordinary! Yes, yes, yes!”)? Annoying. If I need to hear how awesome I am, I’ll hang out with my girlfriends and complain about my hair or my weight so they’ll tell me I’m beautiful and validate my many fine qualities. And that fucking background music that speeds up as time runs out? If I need a reminder that failure is imminent, I’ll call my mom! So the first thing I do when I sit down to play Bejeweled is mute that bitch.

Next, I check my husband’s high score, 559,650, and compare it to my own, 511,500—an anomalous personal victory, the product of a night of heavy drinking and determination. I’ve been chasing that high for a while now, and I’m sick of the empty praise and glowy things and explosions. What I need is more goddamn time! But I swear the more we play (we’re Diamond Blasters, for fuck’s sake!), the harder it is to accumulate time.

Well played, PopCap. That was your plan all along, wasn’t it? Get us hooked, lull us into believing we have mad skills, and then subtly change the game. You’re no better than a drug dealing motherfucker who cuts his product so his clients need more, more, more to get the same high. You should be ashamed. Think of the kids who naively buy into your scheme and can’t get enough.

Frankly, I think my family overreacted to my Bejeweled habit. If my daughter was that hungry, she could reach the refrigerator and the pantry—hell, she could walk a few blocks to the bodega and use her piggy bank money to buy something to eat. And my husband, well, let’s just say my decision to game instead of joining him in bed was an exercise of my sexual agency. (I don’t know what that means, but I’ve read it a lot lately.)

Once I started playing Bejeweled in front of the small human, however, she was all, “Mommy, you’re playing MY GAME.” Her interest was renewed, of course, because she’s not really into sharing. And it turns out she can play without my help, so my fantasy has become reality. I can take a nap clean the house in the time it takes her to get to Level 6! So my torrid affair with Bejeweled may be over (for now), but my child’s is just beginning. I eagerly anticipate great strides in her math prowess, because it’s all about educating the kids, right? Thanks, PopCap!

Sep 16, 2012

Regrets, I Have More Than a Few

I cringe every time I hear someone claim they have no regrets. I wonder, “Are they that flawless a person? Are they deeply in denial? Have they discovered the secret to accepting their mistakes and moving on, and if that’s the case, would they mind sharing it with me?"

I understand that some people reach a point in their lives where they have found happiness, success, enlightenment, and they view their past as a convoluted but necessary path that brought them to that place. My life isn’t perfect—I’m still waiting for greater professional success and personal enlightenment, and I struggle to be a better mother, wife, friend—but for the first time in many years, I’m happy with my little place in the world, and I realize that if I had made different choices, I might not be able to say that. Yet I don’t believe I will ever be able to say I have no regrets.

A list of lingering regrets, incomplete and in no particular order:
  • I regret losing interest in my beloved horse, Darby, when I discovered boys.
  • I regret forgetting to dance with my father at my (first) wedding.
  • I regret hurting people, deliberately or unintentionally. Every single one of them.
  • I regret wasting two years of college drinking and chasing boys.
  • I regret not spending more time with my brother.
  • I regret that awful perm and makeup during the eighties.
  • I regret not visiting my grandfather just weeks before he died.
  • I regret the hundreds of times I could have said, “I love you,” but didn’t.
  • I regret worrying about what other people think of my appearance. (I’m still working on that.)
  • I regret all the time and money I spent on clothes and home décor, trying to impress people.
  • I regret the times I made an ass of myself when drunk.
  • I regret that I have no relationship with my parents, regardless of the circumstances of our estrangement.
  • I regret allowing fear to keep me from doing things I wanted to do.
  • I regret losing touch with good friends.
  • I regret time wasted worrying.
  • I regret that unfortunate tumble down the stairs of the Nordstrom shoe department.
  • I regret every chance I passed up to show my daughter something wondrous—a full moon at bedtime, Christmas lights when it was cold and late, a concert that might have been crowded.
  • I regret letting that financial advisor talk me out of investing in environmentally-friendly mutual funds.
  • I regret that I didn’t make my novel available on Kindle.
For the most part, none of these are life-altering, and I guess that’s my point. If I regretted the big ones—a failed marriage, an imperfect career trajectory, turning down an opportunity to live for two years in Jane Goodall’s house in Tanzania to build her Roots & Shoots program (gah!)—I’d have to acknowledge that the things that now bring me the most joy might be missing from my life.

My daughter was born during my first marriage. How can I second guess anything leading up to the moment my egg said howdy-do to my ex’s sperm and gave us a healthy baby girl? Divorce was a wrenching decision and painful process, but it allowed me to meet my current (and final) husband, who makes both my daughter and me happier than I thought possible.

My diverse work experience has provided a range of skills that I hope will one day make it possible for me to earn a better living doing what I enjoy: writing, editing, and futzing around with website design and development.

And the Jane Goodall project? I still kick myself over that one, because I sometimes imagine the adventure of living in Tanzania, the satisfaction of teaching children to be responsible stewards of their own environment, and the sheer awesomeness of working with Jane Goodall. But if those two years had sent my life in a different direction—one that didn’t include my quirky little family and friends and a promising, fulfilling career—I wouldn’t be the same kind of happy I am today, regrets and all.

Sep 5, 2012

Follow The Money, Stupid

I realized why I've become so irritated by and detached from the political squabbling during this election year. The hot-button topics infuriating people on both the left and the right--healthcare reform, reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, gun control, social safety nets, immigration, and economic policy, to name a few--should be the issues on which voters base their decisions when choosing a president. Instead, they are being used as a distraction, an attempt to draw attention away from the most frightening and far-reaching reality of all—politics is about money. It’s not about vaginas or “legitimate” versus “illegitimate” rape, although it’s easy to focus on those flashpoints.

There is a collection of superrich politicians and businessmen who make decisions beyond the average citizen’s knowledge or control: waging war for profit, controlling the world's energy supply, ignoring global climate change, and hoarding a staggering amount of wealth. Government and big business no longer serve the people. To the contrary, they comprise a private club whose single goal is to protect and increase their wealth and power, and to wield that power to the continuing detriment of the people.

Take, for instance, the contributions of Super PACs in this year’s election. (In case you don’t know, Super PACs are independent expenditure-only committees, which may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates.) Restore our Future has contributed $61.99 million to the Romney campaign as of August 14, compared to $18.72 million contributed by Priorities USA Action to the Obama campaign. 

Does Restore our Future care about the details of the Republican party’s agenda on abortion? Of course not. Even Romney doesn’t agree with it. (Or does he?) They simply want Romney to get elected, for their own reasons. We rage over some idiot’s supposed misunderstanding of how a woman’s body responds to rape, and the media go crazy for a few days until the furor is reduced to a humorous internet meme. Meanwhile, team Romney issues some vague rebuke intended to distance Mitt from the foolish remark, and placate his cash cows, and then they move on, fueled by obscene amounts of money. There is no lasting impact, other than a trail of politicians, such as Todd Akin, whose political careers may or may not be affected. Perhaps their wives will decline to fuck them for a week or two. Most likely, their gaffes will be quickly forgotten.

I’m tired of the hyperbolic nonsense spewing from politicians’ mouths, but I’m more frustrated by how easily distracted we are by the most recent senseless sound bite. A part of me feels that remarks such as Akin’s shouldn’t be ignored, but every minute we spend fuming over what could quite possibly be one man’s deliberately obtuse comment is a minute we could be fighting for real change. The Occupy Wall Street movement felt like a good start, but what happened to that momentum? Did we lose interest because of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Health Care Reform Act? Or because a group of previously irrelevant politicians began a war on women’s reproductive rights? Or was it the shootings in Colorado and subsequent controversy over gun control? Maybe Paul Ryan’s compulsive lying?

It’s all bullshit compared to the geopolitical control enjoyed by what Dwight D. Eisenhower (a Republican) coined the “military industrial complex” in his 1961 presidential exit speech. He warned:
"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist."
We clearly have not heeded that warning, and as long as we allow ourselves to be distracted from what is now an entrenched concentration of wealth and power, as long as we fret over issues that should be important—issues that politicians disingenuously present as all-important—we will remain powerless to fight the real enemies. And we will become as irrelevant as the last talking head to make an inflammatory public remark.

Sep 2, 2012

It's Complicated, This Mother-Daughter Love

(Portrait by Julie Swenson)

Years ago I saw the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. In one scene, a severely depressed mother leaves her son with a neighbor, uncertain whether or not she will return for him. The little boy senses his mother’s desperation, and before he leaves the car he says, “I love you, Mommy.” That line didn’t ring true for me. I remember thinking, “Little kids don’t tell their mothers they love them.” I wasn’t yet a mother, and I couldn’t remember saying that to my own mother when I was a child. Now, however, I understand what that little boy was saying, how he meant so much more than, “I love you.”

When I tell my seven-year-old daughter I love her, she says, “I love you too, Mommy.” Or she will climb into my lap and say, “I love you so much.” We do this many times each day, and I believe her words. Yet her love for me is different than mine for her. Hers is tangled up in need—many needs—that I attempt to interpret and accommodate.

I wasn’t prepared for the emotional complexities of being a mother. I expected to love my child, and to be loved in return, but I didn’t anticipate the intricate shapes that our love, both hers and mine, would assume. I believed, naively, that our mother-daughter relationship would be simple until she reached her teens. Instead, it has been complicated since the day she was born.

As an infant, she was most content with me because my scent and voice were familiar. (I also like to think my repeated crooning of “Hang On Little Tomato” soothed her, since I sang it every day in the shower while I was pregnant.) Yes, I often misread her cries. I fed her when she was tired, or changed her when she was hungry. She wasn’t the easiest baby, but we definitely forged a nourishing bond. As much as I loved her, however, I don’t believe that bond was based on love in her little mind. I was the breasts that nursed her, the arms that held her, the hands that washed and dressed her. I was survival, security, comfort.

At around age two came speech, that sublime milestone most parents long for and embrace with relief. She was so easily filled with wonder then, wandering around the neighborhood learning the names of flowers, or opening jars of spices so she could sniff them and repeat the words I read: cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla bean. At times her verbal play was comical. She was so taken with the word “no” that when offered something she wanted, she would reply, “Nokay.” My love for her was at its least complicated then. I never considered whether or not she loved me.

Later, her contrariness became less amusing. By age three, she was moody and willful, a master negotiator, not easily pleased or placated. I may have been ready for a difficult teen, but I was not ready for this difficult child. Nor had I imagined I would ever find it difficult to love her. That is not to say I didn’t always love her; I did. But that love was often overshadowed by the fact that I didn’t really like her, and I needed time away from her behavior to regain perspective. Hearing, “I hate you,” was easier than I expected because it was so honest, a fleeting expression of anger or disappointment. Yet this was also when she began more frequently telling me she loved me. I knew she was saying, “I love you,” for many different reasons. Like the little boy in the movie, those simple words could arise from happiness, fear, manipulation, insecurity.

I accept that, at seven, my daughter needs me more than she loves me. On the most basic level, she still relies on me for survival: food, shelter, clothing, hygiene. But she also needs me to be there, physically and emotionally. She shadows me, asking for hugs when my hands are full of laundry, or wet from doing dishes. She talks nonstop, expecting me to listen to every word. I can’t always be there, even when she’s with me. I know this, but I still feel an almost constant push-pull, a sense that I should be there more. Or maybe less? Just as when she was an infant, I often struggle to read her cues.

This is the heart of it, never knowing whether I’m doing too little or too much. Before my child was conceived, I was told how I should mother. At one extreme were older mothers like my own, who considered breastfeeding obsolete, let their babies cry themselves to sleep, left their toddlers to entertain themselves in playpens, and considered discipline paramount. At the other extreme were moms who advocated attachment parenting, preached breastfeeding at all costs, believed the “family bed” was essential, and shunned any form of punishment in favor of positive reinforcement.

Over the years I’ve patched together my own mothering style, striving to find what works best for both of us. I’ve tried (and often failed) to show my love for her through action and not mere words. At times I push her away as surely as she pushes me away, but for different reasons. She needs to separate herself (her self) from me in order to grow. I push her away when I mistakenly liken her need for attention to that of a narcissistic mother. (That realization—that her needs are age appropriate—was a beautiful, transforming breakthrough for me, and for our relationship.) Yet I still search for balance. I want to be there enough but not too much. I want the intensity of my attention to match her level of need. I want to get the timing right.

Several nights ago my family, including my daughter, saw an accident which left a man with an arm so badly broken it was gushing blood. He was a stranger, but he needed our help, plain and simple. My husband freed him from the vehicle pinning him to the dirt, and then called for help. I held his hand while my sister-in-law twisted a cord below his shoulder to stem the bleeding. We talked to him as he moaned and yelled and kicked his legs, slipping into shock and, briefly, unconsciousness. When the paramedics arrived and moved him to the ambulance, he screamed. He was still screaming when we drove away. Other than in movies, I have never heard anything like that man’s pain.

The following afternoon my daughter got a sliver in her toe while playing at our in-laws’ lake cabin. I couldn’t hide my frustration over her reaction. I worried what my in-laws would think of my child screaming and refusing to let anyone touch her. I tried unsuccessfully to calm her, but I didn’t try very hard, because it was just a sliver. (Sliver: a thin piece that is cut or broken off lengthwise; a small portion. Even the word implies triviality.) As much as I love her, I couldn’t help her, and I felt more annoyance than sympathy.

Should I have felt as bad about my daughter’s sliver as I did about that man’s shattered arm? I don’t think so. I didn’t know him, much less love him, but his pain and need were so great, so impossible to ignore or to forget. My daughter is my love, but I didn’t feel awful for her. I was there for her, but I couldn’t be there in a way that would ease her pain, and, while frustrating, it was okay. Not all pain, physical or emotional, can be tempered by a mother’s love. I suppose this is something both of us will need to better understand as she gets older.

I am a wife, a friend, a writer, a person with responsibilities other than my child. But she is the most important part of my life. As she grows and her needs become less constant but more complex, I fear that I can’t, or won’t, meet those that are most essential. My job is to ensure that, one day, she won’t need me at all. But because my love for her is unconditional and craves reciprocity, I hope she will still love me when she no longer needs me.

The other night, sitting outside, I saw a blurry group of stars and walked to the edge of the patio to get a closer look. That extra ten feet made no difference, of course, and I realized how ridiculous we are with our struggles, how inconsequential to the universe. This makes me want to try harder, to do everything I can to make my daughter’s life happy, because I will always love her more than anything in this world. For the same reason, I don’t want to raise her to believe she is the center of this universe, to expect that her needs will always be met, her pain completely alleviated, by me or anyone else. And so I will go on walking the line between love and indulgence, hoping that one day I will have earned her love, that she will move along the continuum from a love based on need to one based on mutual affection, trust, and respect.

Apr 7, 2012

Women Vs. Women?

Note: a woman in my writing group recently finished an excellent essay on male/female parity in literature, which I hope to see published soon. Reading her article brought to mind something I've been contemplating for a while: competition between women. Here are my thoughts.

An ongoing controversy in publishing tackles the disparity in representation of male and female authors. Women comprise a fraction of published, reviewed, and award-winning authors. Solid data support this, and it is outrageous that women are still fighting this battle to be recognized as literary equivalents of their male peers.

Ruth Franklin’s “Why the Literary Landscape Continues to Disadvantage Women” in The New Republic addresses this and links to similar essays by Meg Wolitzer and Francine Prose. These women have done a thorough job of dissecting the issue. They detail public spats between authors; they expose publishing, reviewing, and awards practices that favor men; and they assign blame.

This blame has been largely directed at men: male authors who consider women’s writing inferior and male literary critics who more frequently and favorably review male authors. Also in the crosshairs are literary figures, both male and female: editors who accept more submissions from men; prize committees who grant more awards to men; and readers who admit they prefer male authors.

Conspicuously missing from the blame game are agents, the gatekeepers of the literary kingdom. I presume this is because the current focus is on established authors. So the current outrage rings hollow, perhaps because the top literary players are battling over their share of a tiny pie while aspiring authors scramble for crumbs. Parity is an important issue at any level, but this fracas seems equivalent to comparing the number of male versus female CEOs at major corporations while ignoring the huge numbers of unemployed. 

Here, I’d like to steer the conversation away from the rarified world of successful authors toward another, underrepresented group: aspiring female authors.

In 1989 I expected to enter a workforce populated by women offering support, advice, even mentoring. It didn’t take long to realize how naïve I was. Most female interviewers, supervisors, and coworkers had little interest in helping anyone. Rather than a network of sisterhood, I found an atmosphere of competition and resentment.

Fresh out of college, I worked for a wine distributor. My supervisor was a man who saw my potential and became a mentor. He taught me about wine. He taught me to cook, enlisting me as his sous chef for dinner parties. He immersed me in the world of food and wine until I was comfortable at the finest restaurants, at ease organizing lavish wine tastings with suppliers flying from Italy and France.

The company’s president also encouraged me. He urged me to identify and streamline outdated administrative processes, which brought resistance from the mostly female staff. He defended me when one asked, “Why is this glorified secretary messing with how we’ve done things for years?” He praised me when I did something smart and told me when I messed up. I always knew where I stood with him.

This provided a stark contrast to the reception I got from many women with whom I worked. I was a hard worker, did my job well, and avoided office politics. Yet I never found a woman who showed any interest in guiding me through the first years of my working life. They were either disinterested or deliberately undermining.

I once temped at a huge ad agency. I was an overqualified administrative assistant, but I enjoyed the environment and made friends. One offered to arrange an “informational interview” with a female account supervisor. I didn’t expect to be hired, but I thought the interview would be good practice. I also thought it went well. The interviewer, however, surprised me with feedback that had less to do with my skills or experience than my personality. She said I seemed “aloof” and lacked the “excitement” necessary for advertising. She then reported the interview to my temp agency, which prohibited temps from seeking permanent employment with their temporary employers. I was fired.

Later, when I worked for a small ad agency, my female supervisor and several female coworkers respected me and my work, regardless of contentious moments in our professional lives. These women are still friends, people I count on for job references and freelance opportunities. But why are there so few?

Years later I began writing. Again, I assumed I would encounter authors willing to offer guidance and encouragement. Yet I found the only writers willing to help me were men.

When I finished my first project, a screenplay, I attended the screening of a film penned by a local screenwriter. In Hollywood fashion, I thought he would be a good person to know. I introduced myself, chatted about his previous films, and asked if he coached aspiring screenwriters. We met for lunch and I pitched my script. He liked the idea and offered to read it. When he called and said he loved it, I was ecstatic. It was enough for me, that validation. 

We met several times to discuss the script and consider ways to sell it. He sent it to a producer and I lined up a director. It was an exciting time, and although nothing came of it, I am still struck by the efforts he made to help me.

Several years later I finished a novel, and after endless rejections, I self-published. I was proud of my book, but wasn’t sure how much time, energy, and money I should spend promoting it. I was on Facebook, and many “friends” were writers. One woman was a local author whose books I loved. We struck up a virtual friendship, and I asked if she would read my novel and give me feedback. She agreed, and I mailed it to her. Weeks went by; I told myself she was busy. I sent a message to ensure she received it, and she apologized for taking so long. After a few more weeks I followed up, careful not to sound pushy. Again, she apologized. And then I never heard from her again.

Maybe she never got around to reading it. Maybe she hated it and didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Maybe she thought I was trying to use her, although there was nothing she could do for my novel at that point; I simply wanted advice. What bothered me was the lack of a simple response, the passive-aggressive promise to read my work, followed by… nothing.

The women I know who are willing to help sister writers are close friends, or in my writing group. I’m sure there are successful female authors who happily forward friends’ manuscripts to their agents, who lead workshops or publish books on writing. But there is an important difference between helping a friend or teaching a class, and helping an acquaintance. The former is part of friendship or making money; the latter is an act of altruism. Is it inappropriate for a stranger to send a manuscript to an author, hoping for a shortcut to getting published? Yes, and it’s lazy. Most writers have worked hard to get published, and they are busy. Few published authors make a living writing. They teach, work nine-to-five jobs, or wait tables. 

Writing is a competitive business. But this competition seems counterproductive for female authors who want more women represented in literature. Extrapolate my experiences to the literary world in general, and it’s hardly surprising that female writers are underrepresented if they neglect to help bring fresh female voices into the fold.

Perhaps established female authors should question their roles in the male/female literary imbalance. Do they help aspiring authors? Could they do more? Do they want more women represented in publishing, or do they want more recognition for themselves? Would they be comfortable if new female authors appropriated more of the success now enjoyed by men? These are provocative questions; I don’t know the answers.

The issue is not just about numbers; it’s about female authors getting the respect they deserve. But we discuss parity in terms of numbers, numbers that show there aren’t as many women as men getting published. A good place to start might be reaching out to more aspiring female authors. Women shouldn’t condemn the system unless they are doing everything they can to change it. If we have the power and don’t use it, we will remain victims of our own inaction.