June 26, 2012

Brave

Yep. What the internet needs is another blogger writing about Brave, but I'm gonna do it anyway.

There will be spoilers. If you haven't seen it and you don't want spoilers, come back after you've seen it.

First, I have to say that I've been a fan of Celtic mythos in general since I was a wee li'l monkey. I read tales of Cuchullain, the Red Branch. I found Morgan Llewellyn's stories of Fionn MacCumhaill. Amerigan the Bard. I decided around the age of 6 that since my mother would not tell me "what we were," that I was Irish. I liked the sound of Ireland. It just sounded nifty. And I was fascinated with red hair. And islands. It just seemed a fit.

Eventually I branched out into tales from Scotland and Wales, but it was always... well, that's not really about Brave, is it? Right then. The point being, I've a fair background in celtic legends. Now Brave is not exactly a re-telling of any celtic legend I know and I suspect it's not a retelling of any particular one. Instead, it's a coming of age story told Pixar-style, but I think it's also Pixar's coming of age as well.

Pixar, from the beginning, has been grand about making a kid's animated movie that adults also want to see. I think they slipped a little with Cars 2 - not that it was a bad flick, but it was more ... empty? than other Pixar flicks had been. It was a joyous romp through Cars and spy movies, but that's all it was. (Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. Sometimes we just want entertainment and that's fine.)

Brave is a return to deeper thoughts. And whilst it's still a kid's movie, in some very fundamental ways it is not a kid's movie at all. Oh, they can watch it, don't get me wrong, but it may be a bit scary for little-little guys.

The basic plot is simple: oppressed kid fights with parent, says and does things not truly meant, magic changes parent, kid and parent bond as they struggle to get the magic off the parent and eventually triumph, which naturally changes both kid and parent.

It's a coming of age story and I think in many ways it's a coming of age for Pixar as well. It's as if the movie itself is an adolescent, one minute a child, running free, chasing bears, shooting random arrows; and the next it's quite a deep story about relationships and how difficult it can be to love family and want to change them and to be our true selves all at the same time.

I wonder, though, how much of the script was left on the cutting room floor. I would guess at least 30-45 minutes. It seemed to me that every time I would get deeply - at an adult level - into the story and characters, it was as if Pixar suddenly realized, shit, this is a kid's movie. And they'd go back to a chase scene or humour with the triplets or the like. 

A perfect example of missed characterization is one pointed out by Gedeon on his blog. Both mother and daughter during their early fight, hurt something that the other holds precious. The mother throws Mirada's beloved bow into the fire. Mirada cuts the mother's tapestry of the family. Now, the rest of the movie weaves around the tapestry in a really beautiful way and I'm sure many academics are going to have a field day relating all of that. But after Mirada runs out of the room in shock when her mom throws the bow in the fire, we see the mother realize what she's done and pull the bow out. She puts her head in her hands and sobs not just at the fight she's had, but at her own actions as well. It's clear she realizes that she has not just been petty, but unbelievably cruel with that action. Her daughter's rending of the tapestry was largely the overly grand gesture of an adolescent, not actually trying to cut her mother's tapestry. But she took her daughter's most prized possession, the thing that meant most to her as an object and as a representation of all that was important to her - and she deliberately threw it in the fire, as if that didn't matter. 

What the daughter takes from that is that SHE doesn't matter. Nothing she holds dear matters. And quite possibly her mother might as well have thrown her in the fire.

The mother doesn't mean any of that, of course. And we see the mother realizing what she's done and what it meant. As usual, Pixar tells this part of the story beautifully. But as Ged points out, it's then dropped completely from the story. There is no moment (although there is the opportunity at the end) when the mother returns the damaged bow or even gifts her daughter with a new one. Instead, the girl finally repairs, albeit clumsily, the tapestry that she accidentally sliced, and makes amends ... but not the adult. Why did they leave this out? Very un-Pixar-like as they generally pay close attention to such details. Was it cut to keep the film short enough for children? Or was the message intended to be that children should make up to their parents, but parents don't need to make up to the kids? (I doubt that, but it's still a bad omission which could give kids that impression.)

There are other moments that likewise seem like shortcuts and I wonder if this kind of jerky movement from kid's movie to adult's movie back to kid's movie isn't an adolescent growing pain of Pixar's. The story feels caught in that adolescent limbo belonging neither wholly kid nor adult. In some ways I love it more for that, but mostly I just wish it had been longer and actually filled in some of those gaps.

All of that said, I adored the movie for tackling this parent-kid theme in a way I have never really seen before.

As I spoke of the theme earlier, I specifically used gender-neutral language. Kid and parent. I have always been one to ignore gender. A story about a boy playing baseball, in my mind, can just as easily be a girl playing baseball. A story about a girl becoming a dancer could just as easily be about a boy. In my head, anyway. There are biological plot points - Steel Magnolias could not have the exact same plot and kick if the daughter was actually a son - the whole pregnancy and diabetes bit would fall apart. You could come up with a similar plot, however, and still have the same essential story. Stand By Me could possibly have been four girls going to see a dead body and could have still shown how the four were both bonding and drifting apart. Many of the plot points would likely have been different, but the essential story would be the same. The emotional flavour of the movie, however, would have been completely different.

Brave could have been about a boy and father disagreeing, but as with Stand By Me, many plot points would have been different.

I have never, however, seen a movie truly get to the heart of an acrimonious mother-daughter relationship as Brave; not YaYa Sisterhood, not Steel Magnolias or Fried Green Tomatoes. YaYa comes close at times, but it really just scratches the surface.

But this kid's movie delves far deeper in. And that is stunning to me.

Neither mother nor daughter are bad people. The daughter is an adolescent and in her adolescence does something as equally stupid as the mother, although without truly realizing it. I disagree with Ged on this being a weak point in the plot, however, and find it a strong point instead. He compares Merida to Arial from Little Mermaid, and I think he does make some good comparisons there. Arial does the magic to herself and it takes a certain amount of bravery to take that life-changing magic onto your self.

He goes on to say:

Our heroine, the person we've just spent the entire first act getting to know and love, suddenly feels it's perfectly okay to possibly poison her mom. Feeding the pastry to Queen Elinor isn't an act of bravery, it's one of cowardice.

I disagree with the first sentence and agree with the second. And it's my perception of the first sentence which led me to greatly enjoy the movie whereas his interpretation of her act led to his disappointment (I think). Now, neither one of us is wrong in our interpretations. I don't think Ged is wrong or I'm right. This is a story and we all bring our own life experiences to bear on every story we see or read or hear and that's what keeps every writer and actor in business because we all see and interpret them differently according to our experiences.

I saw Merida the adolescent completely trusting in magic. She, if we go fully with this being a celtic tale, has grown up with stories of magic. She has been told that will o'the wisps can lead her to her destiny. They led her to this witch. I saw a child trusting that magic would "fix" everything. Now as an adult and a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy, I know damn good and well - as do most adults - that this is going to backfire in some fundamental way. But Merida is a child on the cusp of adulthood. She thought she had found an easy answer in the archery tournament and was dismayed that things were more complex than that. She's not ready to accept that there are no easy answers. And look! Here's a trail to her destiny! And a witch! She must feel like she's won the lottery - a quick and easy answer to all of her problems.

The witch attempts to warn her and you can, I think, see on her face that struggle between adult and child thinking. But, the child wins and she rushes home to have her cake and eat it, too. You can see misgivings on her face as her mother becomes ill. And then the child resurfaces and she begins the childish "are we there yet" questions about whether her mother has changed her mind about the betrothal yet. We see it more as she tells bear-mother that "it's not my fault" that it's the witch's fault.

This made the movie far more powerful and realistic to me, rather than making me dislike the main character. Now, that's a fine line, no doubt.

In addition, as I said earlier, there is an intense realism in the relationship between Elinor and Merida. The talking at cross-purposes, the two totally different points-of-view on life, the "what a lady is" rules, and possibly most importantly, the absolute inability to communicate and reach the other is stunningly wrought. The way the relationship builds from the beginning to their time catching fish in the stream rivals, in some ways, the beginning of Up (which I think is honestly the best cinematic story-telling ever). This goes beyond adolescent rebellion. It is a parent who is so rules-bound she cannot see her daughter any more and the scene with Merida in the court dress is the epitome of their relationship. Everything that makes Merida who she is, is hidden and constricted by the rules of ladyhood. It is a child so out-of-sync with her time/society that she cannot continue within its bounds.

What is joyful about Brave is that mother and daughter are able to change and to see each other as separate people. Merida is not simply a lady. She is not simply the queen's progeny. She is not a chess piece. And, by the end, Merida can see that she must balance self with duty, neither giving in completely to selfish "I must be me," nor so stifled with duty that she herself disappears. Likewise, the mother learns to relax and attempt to balance the life of the queen with some of her daughter's favourite activities. And Merida learns some of her mother's as well (the new tapestry combines both aspects).

What makes Brave, in the very ending, come back to a child's movie is that faery tale ending. Everything is fixed in the end. And that's okay. Sometimes it does happen that way. And it is a very Pixar ending.

But that ending also once again brings back the tension of child or adult movie? After getting into deeper adult themes of this familial relationship, it backs out of the difficult story and goes back to being legend, faery tale, happily ever after.

And those of us who have struggled with similar familial relationships (and I sort of suspect this *might* even be specific to mother-daughter relationships) are left a bit cold. Wishing despite the selfishness that there was a magic spell which could change our mothers until they recognized us for who we are (and rather forgetting that Merida also changed...). For us, it can be a very melancholy ending to the movie because that change has not happened and may never happen.

My mother will never stop complaining that I don't dress as she thinks I should. That my life is not the gender-appropriate life she thinks I should have. She laments that I "must" work. She hates my hobbies because they are not "appropriate" to her worldview of how I should be.

Likewise, I find her fear of the world infuriating, her weakness maddening, her constricted views of how people should behave, the roles they should have insane.

I adored the ending to Brave because it gave a closure to the movie that I will never have myself. It felt good.

But I fear it also ripped open old wounds in friends who also shared Merida's essential storyline because at that crucial moment, the movie, Pixar, backed away from adulthood and like an adolescent, retreated back to childhood for a crucial moment and handed us a sweet to make everything all better.

What's the phrase? One step forward and two steps back?

It's a stunning film. Beautifully wrought. The landscape shots at times look like photographs, they're so real, so beautiful. And then it pulls back to a gorgeous animated feature. Tensions between art and photorealism. Tensions between adult and child.

Yes, I think this movie is Pixar's coming of age. And I'm eager to see where they go next.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:09 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 24, 2012

Take a Stand

I'm not afraid (I'm not afraid) to take a stand (to take a stand)
Everybody (everybody) come take my hand (come take my hand)
We'll walk this road together, through the storm
Whatever weather, cold or warm
Just let'n you know that, you're not alone
Holla if you feel that you've been down the same road

Yeah, it's been a ride...
I guess I had to go to that place to get to this one
Now some of you might still be in that place
If you're trying to get out, just follow me
I'll get you there
—Eminem "I'm Not Afraid"

The summer I was seven, we went to Disney World, back in the day of coupon books. I saved two coupons for the most important things I could think of. One was for Space Mountain, the other was for the Hall of Presidents. Yes, I have always been that much of a nerd. I wanted to see the robotic Abraham Lincoln, the man I thought was the coolest president the U.S. had ever seen.

No one else, not Grandma, not Grandpa, not Mom, not baby sister, wanted to waste a ticket on the Hall of Presidents and after much pestering, my extremely overprotective mother told handed me a map of the park, showed me where it was and sent me off alone.

I admit I was somewhat terrified to be going alone through this big park. It was the height of Stranger DANGER! and my mother was always going on about how we had to be careful to not get kidnapped.

But hey. Sometimes you have to take a stand and just decide not to be afraid. After all, Abraham Lincoln did it. He stood up and was not afraid and he freed the slaves. All I had to do was walk across Disney World by myself. Piece of cake.

Outside of Hall of Presidents

I found the pavilion with robotic presidents and slid out of the Florida heat into the air conditioning. I was stunned that hardly anyone was there. I took a seat in the back half of the theatre, but close enough that I could get a good look at these robots.

And I waited.

It was kind of scary being there all alone. I had too much time to think. But I was tough. No one would bother me. I sat up a little straighter.

A rustling behind me. I slumped down, scared all over again. Looked behind me. It was a 20-something young couple. Black. I froze.

You see, my father is a horrible bigot, a terrible racist. Big proponent of the Klan.
And my mother was always terrified of anyone who was different. Well-known for locking her car door when a black man stood across the street as she drove.

And both the young man and the young woman smiled at me. That's all. They didn't say a word. They didn't make a motion. They smiled.

And I relaxed completely. I was here to see President Lincoln, after all. The man who freed the slaves. The man who told all of the U.S. that people are people regardless of colour. I was not afraid of a young couple just because their skin was dark and mine so white it practically glows in the dark.

I smiled back at them. We all settled in to watch the show.

They were gone by the time the show was over. I never did have an opportunity to speak to them.

And all this week, I've been thinking about Trayvon Martin. And I desperately want the chance to smile at him. To tell him he has nothing to fear from people whose skin is different than his any more than I did.

Except we all know that's not true.

I want to tell Trayvon Martin that wearing a hoodie shouldn't be a scary thing to anyone. It's a fucking lightweight jacket, for crying out loud. Where's the harm in a piece of clothing?

I am sick that anyone thinks they can kill someone else for wearing the wrong clothes. I don't care if that's a yarmulke, a hijab, a hoodie, a short skirt, or a Notre Dame jacket.

I am sick that any 250lb man in Florida can claim that he was so scared of the threat posed by a 140lb lanky boy just because he wore a hoodie and had darker skin that he thought he was within his rights to pull a gun and kill the boy.

I am sick that he might not be put in jail for this murder.

I am sick that people defend George Zimmerman's actions. There is no defense for that even if the stand your ground law might protect him from jail time.

I am sick when I think if a 17 year old black boy had pulled a gun on a 28 year old possibly Hispanic dude with a rather anglo last name, he'd have been tossed in jail regardless of what reasons he had for pulling the gun, up to and including self-defense. It would have been beat and arrest first, prove your innocence or extenuating circumstances later.

This whole damn mess makes me sick.

And the jackasses who claim there's no racial component to any of this? Pull your head out of the sand and look around.

Really look at what the Tea Party is proclaiming. Really look at what the FOX News drones are doing with their language and have been for years.

Really look at the mess we are in.

Really open yourself to what H. Samy Alim has to say.

It shouldn't be this way. It just shouldn't.

.

I'm really sorry the comments are still off. Still haven't been able to find a non-captcha way of dealing with the spam. I'll keep looking. (Seriously, over 500 spam comments in less than 8 hours was bad. Was 14 hours before I realized it and could get them turned off and I had to delete well over 1500 comments from the database.)

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:35 PM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 25, 2011

NY4M

So a friend's sister lives in NYC and happily attended the celebration in her neighborhood this morning. Her local politician is an out, older, gay man and he gave a heart-warming speech. She thought the whole thing was just wonderful. She also had her small child with her and at one point, she leaned over to explain to the toddler what the whole celebration was about.

"You see, most of the time boys want to marry girls, but some boys like other boys. And so this means that boys can marry boys and girls can marry girls if they want to. So you can grow up and marry anyone you want."

Everyone standing around was cooing and smiling at the scene, when the kid lets off with the somewhat predictable, "But I'm going to marry YOU, mommy!" And of course he sealed it with a kiss. And of course, everyone who'd been listening just laughed and grinned and cooed even harder.

And that, folks, is how you "explain things" to a little guy.

Posted by Red Monkey at 8:03 PM | Blog | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 21, 2011

The Cleaning Book

So, this umm, friend of mine told me this story about a friend's stay-at-home mom. Seems that Donna's mom was determined to have a clean house. This was so that Donna's mom wouldn't feel as guilty for chain-smoking in the house with two asthmatic kids.

She bought books on how to clean more effectively. There was a book entitled Do I Dust or Vacuum First?, Clutter's Last Stand, Clutter Free! and last, but not least, Is There Life After Housework?

Now Donna was no slouch of a teen. She did the chores she was given about as well as any other teen - pretty much picked up her stuff, cleaned her room, did the dishes and other assorted chores. But her mom had this issue with control. So, at 15, Donna actually asked her mom to teach her to do laundry. She'd heard all the horror stories of mixing wrong things together and ruining clothes, and she didn't want that to happen to her. So her mom essentially did all the sorting and just showed her how to turn on their washer. Just the once. Never let her near the machine again. (Despite the fact that Donna, in fact, had not wrecked anything.)

So one morning around the age of 15, she walks into the kitchen and her mother gathered her and her younger brother up and said:

"Before you do anything else today, you have to do your chores."

Ummm. What chores? They'd already done all their usual things.

Their mother proceeded to pull out The Cleaning Book.

The Cleaning Book was a large 2" or 3" binder. It was filled with thick sheet protectors - the slots were perhaps 1.5" high by maybe 3" across. Each of these slots had a notecard which had been cut down to size. A single chore was written on each one and they were colour-coded with a highlighter.

The coding system was thus: what to clean daily, twice a week, weekly, every 2 weeks, monthly, every 3 months, every 6 months, every year.

Their mother handed them this confetti and suddenly instituted, without warning, Saturday Morning Chores. And expected it to off without complaint.

The chores included things like unscrewing the heating/cooling vent covers and cleaning them in the sink, scrubbing baseboards, cleaning off the lightswitch plates - and the lightswitch plate covers. (Think "plastic wrap" for the wall around the lightswitch. And I only wish - I mean and Donna only wishes she was kidding.) And there were the usual chores of dusting and cleaning the ceiling fan and such as well.

But the chore that about did them all in was when Donna's mother handed her the Black & Decker scrubber and a bottle of some insane bleachy chemical thing and told her to scrub her parents' shower grout. She used the scrubber. She used the chemicals. She used a lot of elbow grease until that little motor just about burned up under the force. But every time Donna asked if that was good enough, her mother decided some spot or another was not yet white enough.

And didn't Donna want to do a good job?

So Donna shut the bathroom door and sprayed the ever-living crap outta that shower with the bleachy-chemicaly stuff and got right back down on her hands and knees and leaned with all her force, trying to scrub imaginary "darkish" spots out of the grout.

Luckily for Donna, her mom did come check on her before she passed out from the fumes.

Also luckily for Donna, the children's constant teasing and complaints about The Cleaning Book meant that "Chore Saturday," like most things in that house, only lasted a few months. Their mother gave in to the pressure and they went back to their normal chores.

Except every time they had to clean the baseboards, Donna strongly suspected that The Cleaning Book was merely hidden away from them rather than held aloft like the shining commandments of a clean home.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:38 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

February 3, 2011

Wrong Planet

Interesting. I'm seeing a lot of these "I am enough" and "Me is {more than} enough" posts recently.

Maybe it's because the winter introspective season has really begun, but I know this is where my brain has been recently as well. So I guess I should explain the last few posts a little bit - they've been fairly deep for someone who has seemingly taken a vacation from this blog.

Many of my stories start the same way: I was a weird kid. I was a weirdly logical kid. I was an outsider.

I love starting stories about me this way. I have always reveled in the fact that I am different and have always been considered different. I have never been one to do or say something just to fit in with the crowd. When I say never, I am fairly certain that is not an exaggeration. It has bit me on the ass more times than I care to remember, but it hasn't changed my belief that changing my core self just to fit in is a mistake.

My mother knew this about me from very early on and so, when Austin looked like it was going to force de-segregation via busing, I was moved out of public school to private school. Mom feared that I would see words exchanged or fists thrown and feel a need to step in. It wouldn't matter if it was a commonplace disagreement or a racially motivated fight - nor what colours the combatants were - I would step in and try to make peace. Or at least make sure the underdog didn't get whomped. She was correct in that. I could no more stay out of a fight or an injustice than I could stop breathing.

It was that particular move from public elementary school to a Catholic school for second grade where I came to realize just how different I was. I related better to the adults than to the kids. I don't think I made a single friend my age during that year. I walked the edges of the schoolyard during recess singing a little song to myself that I was too old to play now ... and I kind of admired and marveled at the other kids and their ability to still play. In retrospect, it wasn't that I was too old to play and I didn't really feel that ... but it was the only way I could articulate what I was going through - I couldn't make friends. I had no idea how to read my peers and react appropriately.

I was hyper-logical where the other second graders were roiling masses of constantly shifting emotions that I couldn't read. And they changed so very quickly from one to the next. Being around that was not just confusing to me, it was physically painful. So I held myself out on the edges.

When it became obvious there was a personality conflict between myself and my homeroom teacher, I asked to see the principal. It was the logical thing to do. Why make either Mrs. Rowan or myself suffer through a personality conflict. Other kids didn't hate her, but it was obvious she and I just weren't compatible and were driving each other nuts. She didn't know how to respond to such a logical little kid who was most emphatically not like the other kids. The principal was wonderful about the meeting - met me where I was and gave me logical reasons for not moving me to another homeroom teacher ... and she was quite kind about the whole thing.

The next year, I was back to my beloved public school and I thought my year of being amongst the oddly emotional children was over. This school tossed any 30 or so kids into one class and you stayed there all day (the Catholic school was tracked and you moved from classroom to classroom for various subjects). Upon my return, I was put in a class which had only one of the kids I'd known prior to my Catholic school experience. And I realized it wasn't just the Catholic school kids who were unreadable maelstroms of emotion.

I was still an outsider.

Even my teacher noticed it and became concerned - she called a conference with my mother and noted that I seemed to not be bonding with any of the children despite the fact that I interacted so well with the adults.

Six weeks later, we moved four hour north and I was on my third elementary school and it was just October of my third grade year. And I was still an outsider who got along wonderfully with almost all of the teachers, but really didn't fit in with the other kids. I was the weirdo. The one everyone loved making fun of ... until they realized that not only did I often not get that they were making fun of me, but I didn't particularly care, either.

My nickname, when anyone actually bothered to think about me, was the fetus. To this day, I have no idea why. I just remember the look of hatred? disgust? meanness and somehow a desperation for this barb to land on Greg Frisina's face as he told me my nickname was fetus.

And I remember my confusion and dismissal of it.

I was a stranger in a strange land. These people had social rituals that apparently you had to be born into in order to understand ... and I just didn't get it.

It was a strange place to be. So comfortable in my own skin, in my own world ... but still mindful of the fact that I never seemed to find a place or a group where I fit in for very long. It was as if other kids could tolerate me for a few months and then my inherent strangeness just became too much for them. They were confused by my inability to pick up social cues. Sometimes I couldn't pick it up, sometimes it seemed that I was deliberately ignoring them.

Truth was, I just didn't understand most social cues. At all.

And, I was unwilling ... actually, I think I am incapable ... of not being me. My personality has always been so strong that I find it nearly impossible to "just fit in" by hiding some part of my self.

The first teacher who noticed it was my junior year Spanish teacher. Otherwise I was considered that weird honors kid who just doesn't ... get it.

This Spanish teacher took me aside one day. The other kids in the class had been making fun of me for something or another. This was a matter of course. I didn't even register it because it happened so frequently and because I didn't, once again, understand why they were picking on me. Meh. Whatever. She asked if they were bothering me and I know she found my confusion a little odd. It was nice to know that she saw it, too, though. Nice that she cared enough to ask about it. I let her know that I appreciated that.

I found out a couple of years later, that she was a licensed counselor and had left the high school to work with abused kids. I was unsurprised.

I've spent my whole life wondering why I'm so different. Not unhappy with myself. Not trying to change. Just trying to classify the difference and figure out why my brain works so very differently. I don't get emotions, most of the time. I don't understand a lot of other peoples' emotions. I don't understand why they react the way they do much of the time (although I can parse the reasons that film or book characters behave a certain way with an uncanny accuracy). I do not register faces and names, which I take it is a form of mild face-blindness.

I am the quintessential outsider.

Even online, the place where I thought my social skills were finally excelling instead of holding me back ... I realized this week that it was a false positive. Once again, I know many people who find me pleasant enough ... but have not actually made close friends. Seems no one on Twitter noticed I've been absent for three full days. (Save one person who also knows me IRL.) That skill of making friends seems destined to elude me forever.

So. I had put some hope in a diagnosis over the last several years as I read more and more about Asperger's. Liane Holliday Willey seemed to describe so very much of my life in Pretending to be Normal. Attwood's book on Asperger's - I could see so much of myself in there as well. And I thought, well, maybe here's a reason for my differences. Maybe here is something that explains why I don't fit in. Why I don't get things that seem to come so damned naturally for other people.

But, apparently, the search for an explanation continues for me.

A pastor once told me that I was a seeker.

I think she is quite right. I constantly seek explanations and knowledge and try to put everything into a pattern and get quite frustrated when I can't find or recognize that pattern.

And so, while I am quite content with who I am ...

... I am still seeking why I am the way that I am.

The pattern that explains the differences.

Seeking....

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:17 AM | Blog | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 26, 2011

Coming Out

So there's this rather well-known blogger who runs The Bloggess. She wrote a post Monday called "Coming Out" and it's not about being gay. It's about people coming out and publicly owning their mental frailties, illnesses, disruptions, whatever you want to call them. She decided to do this after a friend of hers lost her husband to suicide.

I do know that the speech she made at Tony's funeral was something that you might need to hear.
Tony took care of everyone. All the time. He was so busy taking care of everyone else, he didn't speak out when something was wrong.

And this is what you can do for me, for Tony, when you leave here today. All you men, you big men. When you walk away from here, you speak. If something is wrong, if something hurts, then you talk about. Tony was so busy taking care of everyone else, he didn't care take of himself. So after this, you speak.

This speaks to me for so many reasons. One, because I'm the person who takes care of everything and I mean *everything* and have since I was about seven or so. Maybe earlier. Two, I have never lived in a home without someone with a mental illness.

I have counted myself lucky that I do not have depression - I've had a couple of situational-induced bouts to be sure - but ongoing, clinical depression is not me.

I have friends with depression. With panic disorders. With anxiety. OCD. I have one friend who was horrifically abused who truly has multiple personality disorder (or borderline personality disorder, or whatever they've renamed it this week).

My mother's family was shaped by a narcissist and an alcoholic. Mine was as well, although my mother's took the form of a martyr complex.

A friend, in signing my sixth grade "autograph book," called me an egomaniac. After looking up the word to make sure it meant what I was afraid it meant, I vowed to think of others more. I was always looking for ways to improve, to "do life right."

With all the problems I saw around me, I vowed to be the perfect human ... which for some reason, in my head, despite really hating Star Trek because of William Shatner, I thought meant Spock. Emotions were simply useless things that got in the way. They confused and bewildered me. (And I mean that not in an emotional sense but as the inverse to a state of logic and comprehension of patterns.)

It wasn't until I read Elizabeth Moon's excellent book The Speed of Dark in August of 2005, that I began to have an inkling there might be something ... off ... with me. That perhaps my constant state of "outsider" was not due to everyone else but to my own brain construction or chemistry.

I'd had ADHD testing done in 2001 because after chemo, things I'd been able to control previously were out of control. I was having problems with motivation and organization, something that had not really been a problem before. But the doctor who did the testing did the absolutely bare minimum (and not really even that) and then left me to my GP who prescribed meds. Meds that I don't think did much of anything and so eventually I stopped taking them and really doubted the diagnosis itself.

But reading first Moon's Speed of Dark and then seeing some books talking about connections/similarities between ADHD and autism, I began to see a better picture emerge.

While Hans Asperger had noticed a set of behaviours back in 1944, his research didn't really become known in English-speaking countries until the early 1990s - after I had already graduated from high school. What is now called Asperger's is a form of high-functioning autism. And the more I've read, the more I've suspected this might explain why I was always so very different.

There's really no meds for Asperger's - instead, treatment is behavioural therapy. I read more and more about it, but didn't bother talking to a doctor. What was the point? I kept hearing story after story of insurance not paying for the therapies and that they were expensive. I was getting by - why go through the bother of a label? I would simply work on the less good traits on my own.

Except my wife was getting a little fed up. She didn't like this self-diagnosis business. Hmph. I was coping.

She didn't think I was.

And then an issue came up where all of this kind of came to a head. I'm missing too many social cues.

So, I've gone in for testing. I don't get to talk to the doc until Monday, so I don't know if I have Asperger's or not. Maybe it really is ADHD causing my issues - the doc tested for that as well. Hell, maybe it's both.

But the thing is, I'm taking positive action. And I am owning whatever the hell it is that makes me different.

Because no matter how different I am, there are others out there who are different like me.

And they need to know that being different is okay. It's okay to ask for help.

Hell, it's okay to revel in your differentness. I do. I'm PROUD of the fact that I am not like other people, that I am myself.

But you also have to coexist with other people. And if you're different, sometimes that means you need help learning how to be yourself, allow others to be themselves and coexist in a healthy and happy way.

Lori, I wish you never, ever had to go through what you've been through. There are no words.

But your words at Tony's funeral have been heard all the way around the globe. Loudly.

Tony took care of everyone. All the time. He was so busy taking care of everyone else, he didn't speak out when something was wrong.

And this is what you can do for me, for Tony, when you leave here today. All you men, you big men. When you walk away from here, you speak. If something is wrong, if something hurts, then you talk about. Tony was so busy taking care of everyone else, he didn't care take of himself. So after this, you speak.

You speak.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:35 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 8, 2011

Why Couldn't This Have Been Friday?

I woke up and looked out the front window this morning and found this:

I think my car is under all that snow

And then I looked out the backyard:

Buried in Snow

More Buried in Snow

I would gleefully move back to Texas now.

I admit. It just might be funny to throw the miniature dachshunds out in that for 30 seconds. That is, if we could find them again within 30 seconds.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:26 AM | Blog | Struggles | Vacations and Photos | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 16, 2010

Terror and Safety

I have no lead-in to this post. No build up to ease you in.

Because there was no lead-in for me. No easing into it.

I was sexually assaulted from the time I was five until I moved out of the house. At times, photographed.

It's taken me years of hard work to come to terms with what happened, but I have and I'm at peace with it. It shaped who I am and how I see the world ... but maybe not in the ways you think.

What I learned is that no matter what you do, how many precautions you take, no one is guaranteed safety in this life. This could be a really sad statement, but it's not. It's not that no one is safe, exactly, it's that we're not guaranteed safety.

There is being smart.
There is being stupid.
And there is being so damn afraid that you are no longer living.

And NONE of those guarantees safety.

I choose to live.

There are times when I don't take enough risk. But I try to be smart about it. Make sure that I'm living my life with a reasonable attempt at safety and risk and life.

And that is why I'm calling out the TSA screenings for what they are. Total bullshit. Security theatre. All for show.

People who want to blow up planes or buildings or shoot each other ... they will find ways to do so.

But there is a balance between how we protect ourselves and how we live.

Using millimeter wave to "photograph" our nekkid bodies is not guaranteed to keep us safe. There are ways to take a plane down that could bypass these screenings.

Using an invasive pat-down is not guaranteed to keep us safe.

I, personally, will not submit to the extra radiation of the scanners. One, after all the cancer tests I've been through, I don't need any extra radiation if I can avoid it. Two, I don't care how grainy or "not personally identifiable" the "photographs" are - I've been photographed nude against my will before and I will not do it again.

And the "enhanced" pat-down? I'm done with flashbacks now. Finally. I'm living a pretty normal life. And I'll be damned if I allow some stranger to touch me there for no damned reason. Feeling trapped, like I have no choice, but have to be fondled?

I know that to keep me, personally, safe, I can't submit to either the scanner or the pat-down.

And, since I'm "randomly" selected for "special" screening every time I go on any plane bigger than a puddle-jumper, I know that I can not fly until this blows over.

Until we as a nation come to our senses and remember that there is being smart, there is being stupid, and there is living.

I aim to live.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:46 PM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 14, 2010

Adversarial

Colour vs. colour. Race vs. race. Good vs. evil. Liberal vs. conservative. Man vs. woman.

Apathy vs. activism. Man vs. nature. God vs. Satan. God-fearing vs. heathen.

Nature vs. nurture. Science vs. faith.

You vs. me.

The story of humanity is encapsulated in just one word: adversarial.

We spend the bulk of our lives looking for connections. Trying to find similarities between the us and the them and connect. And yet so much of what we do and say without thought is actually us versus them.

Adversarial.

Judgement.

I wouldn't do that.

That behaviour is wrong.

Adversarial.

We tear others down as quickly as we try to build up our connections. And what this does is cause an ebb and flow of conflict and pain.

It is our adversarial nature which has caused all of the bullying and suicide in the news so recently. It results in loneliness and hurt and fear and finally despair.

All because we insist on division and punishing each other for our differences instead of celebrating them and being glad that we are variations on the same - different and similar all at once.

Adversarial.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know that I am.

I am the same as you.

For all our differences, I am the same as you.

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:31 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 28, 2010

Those People

"So you didn't go because of all those gay people?" Pause. Repeat. "Because of all those gay people?"

I stopped dead in the hallway at work this morning. I was hoping for context for this conversation spoken overly loud in order to carry over several cubicles to reach its intended recipient.

I saw the older man who said it. I saw another older man to whom the conversation was directed. Maybe there is context in which this was benign. Maybe there is a long-standing and familiar joke between these two which I am missing.

And truthfully, I would have ground to a halt and turned back and stared in disbelief had any number of words been substituted for the one I heard. Fat, retarded, pick-a-skin-colour, pick-a-nationality, pick-a-religion. The key to the phrasing was "those people." Whoever those people are.

You see, those people are my friends. They are my family. They are people about whom I care.

This is not about some state-mandated political correctness. This is about respect for the people around you.

You see, you don't know when a gay co-worker might be walking by. Or the father of a child with Down's Syndrome. Or the brother of a Jehovah's Witness. Or the aunt of a bi-racial child.

And your off-hand talk about how "that is so gay" or "geez, that policy is so retarded" when you don't mean disrespect to gays or those with mental disabilities affects people despite your intent.

Sure, people can be overly sensitive. I was once told I could not call my cat "special" or retarded despite the fact that he did have a vet's diagnosis of mental retardation/brain damage &endash; because a relative knew people who had that for real. No amount of explaining could make him see that I was using the word clinically, the same as I did for the cat who had cancer. I think that was a little over-sensitive of him &endash; but because I respect him, I simply don't refer to that cat's problems around that relative. Out of respect.

But all too often we don't think before we speak or tweet or write. We just mouth off and then act shocked when someone "decides" to take offense when we are not respectful.

I didn't take offense this morning. But that phrasing has haunted me all day, nonetheless. I didn't choose for it to do so, but it generates so very many questions. Is this someone who might become violent around people who are different? Or worse, someone who just snipes behind the back, trying to undermine everyone else's opinions of anyone he thinks might be gay? It's so easy to fire someone just for being gay. It's not like marital status or skin colour or religion. Your employer has to come up with a better reason than those things if he wants to fire you. But if you're gay? Hey, we don't like "those people" here. Don't bother coming back.

Given the tiny bit of context I had, this is probably nothing to worry about. Probably.

But the uncertainty remains.

Those people.

.

And before I could hit publish, the ineffable Angie had posted a story which, quite honestly, was so related, I had to link to it here. Gay Cupcakes Are So Gay.

And, disturbingly, others on Twitter started pointing out multiple similar stories or issues with morons having issues with "Teh Gays."

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:39 PM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 19, 2010

A Tale of Two Kids

O
nce upon a time there were two kids in the third grade.

Stacy had lived in this same town and gone to the same school all her life. Chris had bounced from town to town and state to state and this school was her fourth school, not counting preschools. Stacy and Megan had been best friends forever and now they decided to also be friends with Chris. They were good friends for a time and their little group expanded over the course of a year to also include Penny and Anna.

What Stacy Knew
Stacy and Megan had been friends forever. They did everything together and Stacy always declared how something was to go. She said when to do schoolwork, what number to stop at and wait for the other person to catch up - so they could turn their schoolwork in together - and what games they'd play. She let Megan decide the games sometimes, but mostly Stacy ran everything.

Then along came Chris. Chris was freaking bull-headed and not very cooperative. She tricked Stacy into thinking she'd also follow Stacy's orders, but she didn't. Why one day, Chris worked ahead on a language arts assignment and not only went past number ten and didn't wait for Stacy (and Megan) to catch up, but when Megan saw where Chris was ... and where Stacy was ... Chris made Megan also work ahead. And then Chris turned in her paper before Stacy and Megan! They were friends; they were supposed to do everything together!

On the playground, Chris had ideas. Big ideas. She suggested they play Star Wars. And somehow most of the third grade got involved. And Chris was directing everything. Stacy won, however, because she got to play Princess Leia while Chris didn't get to be any character because she was bossing everyone around and directing the whole thing.

It was pretty funny, though. Chris decided - and Stacy agreed - that Princess Leia and Darth Vader were actually getting drunk together during the interrogation. Stacy (as Leia) and some boy playing Vader pretended to stumble around, hanging on each other and hiccuping and singing "How Dry I Am." Stacy loved being the center of attention. And hanging on that boy. And being the center of attention.

But honestly, Chris was getting too uppity. It was Stacy who decided what the group did, particularly now that it had grown during fourth grade. To teach Chris who was in charge, Stacy cajoled one of the boys to "take care of her" during lunch.

Despite her best efforts, Stacy was appalled to find out that the boy didn't beat up Chris. And Chris somehow managed to not get in trouble for fighting. In fact, no one except Stacy seemed to even realize there was a fight going on!

Chris did seem to settle down - a little - so Stacy relaxed. But it wasn't long before she sent another boy after Chris. And another. And another.

In the beginning of fifth grade, Stacy got a lucky break. The teachers decided to re-evaluate all of the kids before placing them into groups. Chris got bumped down in language arts which meant that she was apart from the group more. Stacy worked hard on freezing Chris out so she could go back to helping the group be more of a group and support each other better. It worked. By the end of fifth grade, even though Chris had somehow convinced the teachers she should move back up to highest language arts, she was more distant and finally drifted away from the group.

Which was good, because Stacy was pretty sure that Chris was crazy. Why else would she argue with every little thing Stacy said or did?

What Chris Knew
Chris was tired of moving. She wanted friends that would last forever. Chris did everything fast. Run fast, talk fast, usually came to fast decisions. Schoolwork especially was done quickly so she could pull out a book and read something that was actually interesting. Schoolwork, to be frank, was simply a stumbling block in the way of life, always invading and interrupting. It's not that she didn't like learning, but schoolwork at this new school was way simpler than she was used to and it was boring. She was having to repeat work that she'd done at the beginning of the year in her old school. So she had a lot of time to think up new games to play with her friends.

Because she'd moved so much, she had a tendency to plan everything out in her head ... and when things didn't actually work out that way when it was time to act, she got very confused. Didn't everyone know this was the most efficient or most fun way to do things?

In language arts class one day, Chris worked to number ten like Stacy said. She looked up and over at Megan's paper. She was on number five. Stacy was on number three. Chris wanted to go get a book. She fidgeted. Bored. Bored, bored, bored. Looked over again. Oh for crying out loud. She worked the rest of the worksheet (the same one she'd done back at her old school weeks ago). She was appalled when Stacy finally looked up to discover that not only had Chris worked ahead, but so had Megan, and then Stacy burst into tears. She'd have felt way more bad about it if Stacy hadn't told the teacher that Chris had done something to her and made the teacher mad at Chris.

In fact, she was often confused as to why Stacy was mad at her this time. Also confused as to why Megan called Chris an egomaniac. Or why when she tried to make up for doing something wrong by genuinely saying sorry and offering a peace-offering gift, it was always the wrong thing to do. (Even Chris' Mom would say, "Oh Chris, you didn't. You can't just give things after you make someone mad. You can't buy their friendship.")

The more Chris tried to stand up for herself, the more she got in trouble. Teachers and her mom both told her to be more assertive, but it seemed like she'd never learn how. She was either just going along with everyone else to keep the peace or she was in trouble. There seemed to be no in between.

Softball Trophy Held Aloft

She didn't understand why Stacy kept sending boys to beat her up at recess. Or how Stacy managed to keep the teachers away so the fight wasn't broken up. Of course, Chris could take care of herself and no boy actually beat her up. In fact, other than the boy who fought like a girl, clawing at her arms with his fingernails, the fights were actually kind of interesting.

They all tried out for softball. Anna, Penny and Stacy were on the same team as Chris, but Megan lived across the line and had to be on another team. Chris wound up as pitcher, which was cool because she got way too bored in the outfield. She wished they were playing baseball instead, though. Pitching underhand was freaking lame.

Of course, Stacy couldn't stand for Chris to be good at something, so Stacy practiced pitching and practiced and practiced until by the summer after fifth grade, she was top pitcher instead of Chris. Chris let her. Told the coach she was tired of fighting and didn't even want to pitch any more.

Chris was pretty much exhausted in general.

What The Other Kids Didn't Know
Stacy and Chris were more alike than either one of them knew. As it turned out, they both had control issues although none of the kids would have necessarily called it that at the time. They also had the same reason to need to control things.

Stacy's mom was an alcoholic.
Chris' dad was an alcoholic.

As it turned out, so was Anna's dad which might explain why she had no patience for the power games but just spoke her mind and let the chips fall where they may.

Stacy's mom was checked out.
Chris' dad was checked out ... except late at night when he was a little too involved.

Neither kid was in a good position. Neither kid was allowed to control much of their own environment and so, they thought they both just wanted to get their way and feel in control of something.

Chris drifted away from the group because she was confused. Stacy was glad to have won.

In the end, however, neither kid won anything. Both of them continued to deal with an alcoholic and abusive parent. Stacy's mom eventually left ... disappeared. Chris' father remained overly involved late at night and Chris remained unable to speak of it (and almost unable to remember by daylight).

Some twenty years later there's a lot more understanding. Neither kid was actually trying to affect the other or hurt the other so much as understand the very confusing world around them.

There's always more to the story than the bits and pieces from one player. And even when you have the pieces both players are willing (or able) to share ... there's usually even more than that to the story.

Neither Stacy nor Chris was a bully, although listening to the opposite kid in third grade might have convinced you otherwise. There was certainly a war going on and it's a shame that both kids were so good at functioning as if everything were fine. They both could have used more intervention and questions to perhaps ferret out the causes for their behaviour back in the third grade.

But then, that's what it means for many survivors - not so much to ignore, but to rise above anyway. To insist that they can do things themselves, handle things themselves, no matter how tired or frustrated they are - or how unfair it might be. To not explain, because it's not possible to explain what you don't really understand. To take impossible situations and bull through them stubbornly to come through on the other side.

Because really? What other choice is there?

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:21 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 19, 2010

4/19/1995

I lived most of my life in Texas and spent summers visiting my grandparents in Oklahoma. For a short while, we lived in Oklahoma City near my grandparents. As a Texan, I am bound by law to make fun of Okies - particularly my sister since she was born in Oklahoma City.

Founders Tower in Oklahoma City

I was fascinated by Founders Tower downtown and often begged Grandma to take me there just because I thought the building was so interesting. I don't recall the Murrah Building, although it was built in 1977, before my grandparents moved out to the Talequah area.

In 1995, I was walking through the student union. I'd moved to a state "up north" for graduate school and I'd been there - and regretting it - for 8 months.

I never felt so out of place as looking at the familiar landscape of Oklahoma City as I did walking by that big screen in the student union fifteen years ago today. That was one of my cities. A place where I had lived. The place my grandparents had lived. The place my little sister was born. And some dirtbag had blown a building up.

This was the city where I took a magic class. Where I learned about Zotz candies and where I got to be in the audience for a TV show and was shown the engineers' booth.

WTF just happened?

I remember a moment of wanting to rush forward to help.

And then remembering that I was some 800 miles away. I could only watch. Feel helpless.

9:02 a.m.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:17 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 5, 2010

Suffer Little Children

I was raised Catholic. My mother is still devoutly Catholic. My aunt is still devoutly Catholic and the chair of the religious studies department of a large Catholic university to boot. My sister and my cousins, all Catholic. I am the only oddball in the family to leave the church.

The others make assumptions as to why, although no one has been brave enough to ask. As far as I can tell, they make two general assumptions: 1) I left because I'm gay and the Church has no love for the queers. 2) I left because while not abused by any clergy, I was abused and probably don't like how the Church is handling abuse claims today.

Both assumptions are incorrect.

I was a child of questions. "Don't do X" was immediately followed with why not? If that wasn't actually explained to me, I did "X" anyway, largely to find out what the problem was. If an adult or child couldn't explain something to me, then it didn't exist to me. I can remember being at a friend's house in grade school and asking where her kitten was. No answer. A little later I asked again. And again. And again, until one of the other kids took me aside and explained that the kitten had feline leukemia and was dead. I couldn't seem to pick up on the social cues that everyone else had picked up on ... and I had to have an answer.

My mother learned quickly NOT to tell me, "you can't do X," because I would promptly do X just to show that I could too so do it. She also learned to quit telling me "you can't say X" for the same reason.

The Catholicism I grew up with was largely built of "you can't" without explanations. I drove my CCD (Catholic "Sunday" School) teachers crazy with my questions.

The lunchbox church I attended in jr high and high school

"You have to go to church every Sunday."

"But what if you live too far away from a church? Can't you just read the Bible all day long on Sunday and have that count?"

I was planning, you see, on moving to the middle of nowhere, totally off the grid, in a log cabin house I somehow miraculously built myself with an ingenious water trough system that would give me electricity (in some magical fashion - I couldn't be bothered with the minute details just yet).

"No, that's not enough, you have to attend Mass with a priest."

"But if you live in the middle of nowhere and can't get to a church, I mean. Is it still a sin."

"Yes."

"But why?"

"Because you chose to live away from the Church."

Oh well, for Pete's freaking sake. Nothing the teacher said would make me believe that God would be so petty as insist we drive 10 hours to find a Catholic Church just to hear some priest ramble about giving money to the church during his ten minute sermon. Seemed to me that the priests I knew were too boring to count as really going to church and we'd obviously be better served by doing something active for God instead. Reading the Bible, doing good works, something.

In fact, failing to get a good answer (or the answer I wanted, you can interpret that either way), I began taking a hard look at my church. For a long time, I assumed that the problem was with my specific parish. I remembered kind of liking church in Austin, but the Monsignor who ran our church seemed a bitter old man who simply wanted his parishioners' cash.

It was, of course, a bit more complex than that, but at 12 or so, I couldn't see it yet.

There was no youth group ... every time a young "helper" priest was assigned to Most Blessed Sacrament, the Monsignor ran him off in a matter of months. Youth groups were started and fell by the wayside with each one. There was no way to engage with the church at the time. I couldn't serve at the altar. I was too little to be a reader. Too little to be a Eucharistic minister. The only thing I could "do" was sit and listen.

Being passive has never been a strong point for me. And yet, that was all that was being asked.

I wanted to be part of things. Discussion, activity, mission work ... something to demonstrate the faith I was being told to believe. It wasn't enough to talk about the Good Samaritan, where was my chance to act that way? To help someone?

By the time Confirmation rolled around, I already knew I was not, in my heart, Catholic anymore. I disagreed with far too many tenets of the faith. I was not a docile lamb to be led. I needed discussion, activity, challenges and I was not getting them. I didn't really believe in the infallibility of priests or the Pope.

But I couldn't figure out how to tell my family that.

I read Joyce's Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man ... and as Stephen said, I wasn't Catholic, but I sure wasn't Protestant, either. After reading several novels by Chaim Potok, I contemplated converting to Judaism ... but there were several issues there.

Then came my first year in college ... and I was just about ready to tell Mom my big secret ... that I just couldn't pretend to be Catholic any more ...

... and some idjit called the house to tell Mom I was gay. So of course that was a whole different trauma, and to be honest, Mom just assumed that I was no longer Catholic because of it. That phone call set off a whole avalanche of events - I was kicked out (although I already had a lease signed to move out within about 6 weeks anyway); Mom divorced Dad within about 12 weeks of that phone call; Mom moved an hour away. Best though - I was no longer expected to go to a church in which I no longer believed.

Let me make this clear: I do not hate the Catholic Church. I just don't believe in the hierarchy. I don't think any less of my family for continuing as Catholics. I admire them, particularly my aunt and cousins who are very active in their churches and have found ways to disagree with some tenets and yet still retain faith not just in God, but in the Catholic Church. Much of what led me to early disgruntlement with the church had more to do with a specific priest ill-suited for the congregation he found himself in and some not very thorough CCD teachers. Had the early foundation been more strong, I might have felt more comfortable working within the Catholic church instead of having to find my way out.

The Vatican

So when I say that I am DISGUSTED with the current pope and the sexual abuse disaster, please understand that it is not some kind of uninformed and misdirected emotion.

The vatican has made it pretty clear to me that they prefer to push off blame. First, they tried insinuating (or, in some cases downright saying) that if they could just clear the queers out of the priesthood, the problem would be over. Of course, this completely ignores the girls and women who've been abused by priests. It also ignores the fact that most of these priests committing abuse are not necessarily gay. They are pedophiles and pederasts (men who are attracted to adolescent young men). In other words, the church would begin a crackdown on queers in the priesthood and obviously this kind of crap would become a thing of the past. Move along, nothing to see here.

This ignores the good homosexual priests who've remained celibate. (The homosexual issue is separate from the abuse issue - and besides, if the priest is celibate and only the homosexual sex act is actually a sin, then why care if they are priests????)
It ignores the heterosexual priests who have abused their position.
It ignores the heterosexual priests who are sexually stunted and don't know how to help their parishioners when they come for advice.

I am not going to get into whether or not celibacy "causes" the kinds of problems the Catholic Church is facing right now. I think it's far more complex than a simple answer like that.

I am furious that the way the church has handled the issue up until now is through silence and secrecy, the very things that abusers instill in their victims and perhaps the hardest barriers to getting those victims turned into strong survivors. I know ... it took me a number of years to be able to admit to myself what had happened to me. And it took a seemingly ridiculous number of additional years to be able to physically write or utter the words, much less tell someone else.

For the church, which is supposed to be a place of refuge, solace and safety to essentially tell people "forgive and most of all forget," and insist on reinforcing secrecy, shame and silence is, to me, completely unforgivable.

Catholics are to obey the hierarchy. I understand this. It is the main problem I had with Catholicism ... and the reason why is being played out so publicly right now.

How can any person of conscience keep silent about the types of things that they knew were happening? There are documents of bishops, local priests, etc, begging the next person up in the hierarchy to do SOMETHING about some priest who'd done something horribly wrong. How could they in good conscience keep those secrets just because their bishop or cardinal told them to do so?

Why did any member of the church think this was a healthy and healing way to handle the problem?

From paperwork now coming out, it looks like now Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, knew about at least some of these cases. Some of the truly heinous cases ... and did nothing.

The church claims he tried to fast-track some of these cases, but the facts seem to indicate otherwise. (I'm thinking particularly about the Wisconsin case with the school for the deaf.) At the very least, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he either knew about such cases or was woefully negligent in his duties. After all, the Wisconsin case involved the highest priority - a priest accused of molesting in the confessional, sullying the sacrament of confession - and accused of molesting an absolutely insane number of boys.

One case in Germany seems to sum up the reaction of the Catholic church:

A German man who after many, many years finally was able to physically say that he'd been abused, was first disowned by family who refused to believe him. Then he reported the men who'd abused him to the church. He was offered a smallish sum of money ... on the legal condition that he never speak of it again. This made him angry, and rightfully so. He'd worked so hard to finally be able to speak and break his silence.

He wrote to the Pope - at that time John Paul II - asking for help, and received a letter from Rome.
It contained no apology. Instead, a Vatican official wrote that the Pope would pray for him and encouraged him to return to the family of the Church.
(source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8564378.stm retrieved 4/5/2010)

Other news sources report that Pope John Paul II knew about other cases as well ... and did nothing. That Ratzinger knew or should have known about cases ... and did nothing. (Or moved with glacial speed.)

I don't know for sure. I do know that the church's reaction to this now is what has me both incensed and more likely to believe the worst. One cardinal said this is all "petty gossip." The pope's personal priest attempted to read a passage from a Jewish friend's letter and seemed to indicate that the "persecution" the church was experiencing was just like anti-Semitism.

Another article points out a cardinal who's had to deal with the aftermath of a pedophile, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Groer's successor, criticised the handling of that scandal [Groer is believed to have abused some 2,000 boys] and other abuse cases last week after holding a special service in St Stephen's cathedral, Vienna, entitled "Admitting our guilt".
Schönborn condemned the "sinful structures" within the church and the patterns of "silencing" victims and "looking away".
(source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article7086738.ece retrieved 4/5/2010)

Schönborn and others seem to be insisting that Cardinal Ratzinger tried to do the right thing, but that Pope John Paul II is the one to blame.

They all miss the point.

A true person of conscience, once they know about such heinous abuses had a moral duty to STOP IT. If they could not do that from within the system, they should have, in the spirit of Jesus, gone outside the Vatican's system.

While the survivors and victims' families may want to place blame precisely where blame is due ... those less directly affected just want the church to 'fess up.

I don't care if it was Ratzinger's fault or John Paul's fault that Father Murphy wasn't instantly removed and laicized. I really don't. I want Pope Benedict to say, "We should have removed him sooner. We should have had a better process, a faster process by which to determine guilt and then laicize him from the priesthood. We messed up, but we're looking at what went wrong and using that to better our process and our system so this doesn't happen again."

I have heard of a document supposedly kept under lock and key in which bishops were told to NOT go to the authorities in abuse allegations, but to keep the parishioner quiet and send the info along to the Vatican so the priest could be moved somewhere else.

Those who are speaking out about this, seem to want to blame John Paul II. I don't know if they're simply pushing this off on a dead man who can't defend himself ... or if John Paul II was truly to blame. I don't really care. Pope Benedict is in charge now and he's got a lot of work to do to earn back the trust of so many who feel the Church as a whole has been lying, has been concealing, has been betraying the very people they are supposed to shepherd.

It's not about blame. It's about taking responsibility.

Claiming the church is being persecuted, that people are engaging in "petty gossip," these are not the responses representative of a loving God. They're the responses of a child with a hand in the cookie jar and crumbs all over their shirt.

(Title of post from Matthew 19:14 (King James Version)
14 But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.)

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:15 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 30, 2010

Grace

I have railed a couple of times (at least) about television shows I've liked that have been canceled. Yes, I'm one of those people who gets bitterly angry when "my stories" are interrupted, whether that be a book series, comic book run or television. I am notorious for snapping the head off of anyone who attempts communication with me during the last 50-100 pages of a novel that I'm into. I am known for buying an entire story arc of comics and not reading them until the arc is completed and purchased so that I can get through the entire thing in one sitting.

It's not that I use stories as escape from my own life, because that's never actually been the attraction. Instead, others' stories are a clear view into how people work. What makes people tick. Why do they act in the ways that they do. I learned, early on, that a really good story, no matter where it is found, doesn't just tell you about the unique experience of a particular person or group - instead it both tells a unique history and emphasizes how in our disparities we are so very, very similar.

In short, I become utterly fascinated with the dichotomy of different and similar in a good story.

Television stories, however, are often little more than amusement to me. They are rarely allowed to be complex enough to truly explore the differences deeply enough until they become similarities. Television rarely surprises me and it rarely requires my full attention. Frankly, in the last 10 years, I think my television has been on just too damn much - but while I prefer to listen to music, my partner can't read with music on, so I've grown accustomed to no radio. She enjoys having the television on for background noise - I can't read with spoken word as background noise, so my reading habit has gone largely by the wayside and has been replaced by various activities I can do whilst watching television. We watch a fair amount of DVDs since television is largely a cotton candy affair - nice and fluffy, but rarely anything of substance. With DVDs, we can stick to shows that require attention and are at least somewhat intellectually stimulating.

I watched Joss Whedon's Firefly and Dollhouse regularly, fascinated by the complex characters the writers and creator wove into being. Joan of Arcadia was another show that was complex, trusting the viewers to pay attention and think for themselves. Dark Angel started out as another complex show, but the more the network (rather than the writers) screwed with it, the less intelligent and demanding it became, until it, like all the others I've mentioned here, was canceled.

These were all shows which attempted, some better than others, to examine how people work and why they work the ways they do. These were all shows which required thought and sometimes required watching the show a second or third time to catch important nuances. They could all certainly be watched at a surface level - at least I think they worked that way as well. But there was a deeper side to each of these which truly made them worthwhile.

However, only two television shows have ever required my full and complete attention: Showtime's Dexter ... and TNT's Saving Grace. Often, I have finished watching an episode of Grace only to immediately hit "Start Over" and watch it again.

I should have known it was too complex to continue to air, despite its very high ratings for TNT. Fox Television Studios, the producer of Saving Grace, decided last summer (at the end of season 3) that DVD sales were not "good enough" to continue making the show. Apparently they agreed to shoot six additional episodes and TNT is paying for another three episodes so the writers can tie up the series. Thank goodness TNT decided to do that.

Saving Grace has been more complex and important television than anything I've ever seen. As fascinating as Joan of Arcadia's questions into religion and God were, Grace has taken it to a completely new level, at once more realistic and less compromising than Joan (don't get me wrong - I still think Joan of Arcadia was awesome television).

cover of Same Kind of Different as Me book

Watching last night's episode was an experience I can't describe. It was so intense, so realistic, so well acted, written and well-paced - I've never seen television like it. And what I find particularly fascinating is how well it meshed with Same Kind of Different as Me - the book we just finished reading in Sunday School, with current events, with Passover and Palm Sunday both.

A quick recap of the show:
Grace Hanadarko is a detective in Oklahoma City, on the major crimes unit. She's a typical Southern cop - hard drinking, plentiful smoking, hard language, and promiscuous. Except, of course, instead of being a good ole boy, she's female. You get the impression that Grace has embraced the stereotype rather than the writers - because there are plenty of moments where that shell of the good ole cop breaks and we see the real person beneath it. Grace comes from a large Catholic family - her older sister was at the Murrah Building on the day of the bombing. Her father was a firefighter and at least one (if not two) brothers are also firefighters. Another brother is a priest. (She also has a sister and a very beloved nephew - the son of the dead sister.)

The first seasons deals with Grace having a "last-chance" angel named Earl, a real salt-of-the-Earth almost hick type. During the first season, Grace eventually confronts and acknowledges a series of events which largely shaped the woman that she became. (No spoilers here!) The second and third seasons continue to delve into questions of religion and God (never going so far as to call one religion any better or more true than another) but also delves more deeply into the lives of all of the cast. All of their trials. All of their joys. How each of them deals with the myriad of shit that life hands out to all of us. The third season ends with Grace trying to help Neely - someone she met through Earl's intervention and cryptic prodding. Grace and Neely are on top of a twelve story building ... and jump. The last bit of footage shows that both women are alive and well despite the fall.

Title Card for Saving Grace show

This final season begins with them being rushed to the hospital ... and then tackles the questions of belief, faith, miracles and God immediately, without reservation and without trying to sugar-coat anything.

How does Grace, a rather avowed non-believer, deal with a miracle?

As is the character's wont, she does not take it gracefully, but spends the next day rebelling, continuing behaviours she knows are excessive ... and are "naughty." It's as if she has to wash away the good of the miracle with the mud and muck of the world she knows. A world where miracles happen is an unknown that Grace cannot trust. She knows what she gets with a night of beer and tequila. It's comfortable and familiar.

And yet ... she can no longer believe in the fight she's fought for so long.

An early scene in the episode:

Grace, at the altar:
(looks out over the empty cathedral-like church. Stretches out arms in crucifixion pose) Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
(pause)
(Grace takes off running. Goes to the podium area - one of the fancy versions w/ stairs up to its little cupola type spot. Grabs the fancy carved edges of the podium and lets out an almighty scream)
Okay. You've hunted me down like a spurned lover. I'm not going to take no for an answer. How can I deny you any more. You scare me.
I don't know what to trust, I don't know who you are. What you want. I mean, look at this place. This glory for you. Is it enough? Am I enough? I'm trying to hear you but I can't do it in this place. Not here.
(footsteps)
Earl?

It's the kind of breakthrough that Earl has been hoping for ... but we hear no response from God, only the footsteps which belong to a stranger rather than Earl.

In fact, it seems that Earl is with everyone around Grace ... but not really going to her. He seems nervous and in some ways, I think he is in awe of Grace - both who she was before and after the fall. Earl is afraid of the miracle he's seen because Earl is a softie ... and where there has been great light, must then fall great darkness ... and Earl hates to see anyone suffer.

The entire episode is a well-timed choreography blending darkness and light, good and evil, the sublime and the mundane and does so in such a way that you are completely captivated by the story ... and despite the overt theme and language, you do not feel preached AT. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction ... and Earl fears the backlash that will be caused by Grace's miracle fall.

As I write this, I can't help but marvel about the oppositional nature of the show - Grace falls not to her doom, Grace doesn't fall from the heavens to become a fallen, prideful being like Lucifer. Grace falls ... to gain grace/Grace.

Grace at Louie's Bar

And the effects are far-reaching. Her brother Johnny denies that he's ever seen an angel when a doctor questions him on Neely's behalf in the hospital. Later, Johnny sits next to Earl in a bar, the local hang-out.

Earl:
Your boss at the Vatican might be pretty happy. A miracle for the whole world to see.
Father John:
Oh you'd be surprised. The Vatican doesn't need proof of God's existence. When unexplained occurrences are attributed to God, the process to confirm or deny, embrace or reject, causes, excuse me, a shitstorm of political and societal repercussions which frankly, the church doesn't really deal with.
Earl:
So these two women saying they got an angel.
John:
Yeah.
Earl:
What do you think? You think they got an angel?
John:
(instantly) No. (long pause) Yes.
Peter denied Jesus three times because he was afraid to die. What am I doing? Worry about being silly or ending my career.
Yes, I know those two women had an angel.
Earl:
See. Until the proverbial cock has crowed, there's always time to make it right.

But intertwined with this story of a modern-day miracle, with Grace's newly burgeoning belief, is a cop story about a dog who killed a person. The mundane and the sublime. The muck and the glory.

[THIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS A SPOILER ABOUT THE EPISODE]
The easy out for the writers would have been to make the character I'm calling "Dark" be the culprit of murder by dog. It would have been quite easy to say that just as Denver in Same Kind of Different As Me said that Deb's light was shining so bright that there would be a darkness coming to balance it, that there be some kind of supernatural act which precipitated the woman's death. That somehow "Dark" used a perfectly good, sweet and innocent German Shepherd and somehow forced him to kill the girl, without the owner's consent. And I was prepared to suspend disbelief and go with it. But the show is more complex and realistic. Why take a cheap and unrealistic shortcut? Blending with the storyline of Grace's discovery of grace, we have a storyline where the rest of the cops in Grace's unit uncover a man who took a sweet puppy and used him as bait. Trained him to attack. Trained the dog to attack people. At the neck. This man trained his dog, sent the dog after this woman "because she was there" and had the dog kill her. And then he took the dog out back behind a warehouse, shot him and threw him in a dumpster.
[END SPOILER]

God did not kill the woman. The mysterious stranger, "Dark," did not kill the woman. It was simply man's inhumanity to man.

Likewise, God did not kill Deborah and take her from her husband, Ron (the co-author of Same Kind of Different as Me). As Dewey (one of the cops in Saving Grace) says, "shit happens."

Shit happens and how we react to it, what we choose to do with our experiences, how we allow those experiences to shape us ... that has always been the core element of Saving Grace that has kept it amazing television.

At the end of Sunday School, as we were finishing our discussion of the book, a discussion question was "how do you think Denver, who'd had such bad things happen all his life, could keep such a simple faith in God? What keeps us from having such a simple faith?"

Now, I'm not going to preach at you. I don't do that.
But I think the answer here is very simple, regardless of what god/gods/higher power you believe in.

I think it's often how we're raised. I don't mean raised with or in a religion. It's something more basic and more profound than that. I think it's with what expectations we are raised. If you are raised to believe things like "if you work hard, you'll have a great job, career, family, interior life, stuff, whatever" - then I think you come to expect those things. Most people do not believe they are doing bad ... most people think they live good lives. So why, then, if you are living a good life, do you not have whatever it is that's missing? Why don't you have kids? Why did this bad thing happen to you? Why did you lose your job, your career, your wife?

We can blame ourselves ... I didn't do enough. I wasn't good enough. But I think there are times when we discover that we really didn't do anything wrong. A friend once told a story of how she went to church every week. And then more than once a week. She was very, very into it. Tried to constantly do good, to live as God and her pastor wanted.

And as she walked home one evening, she was raped under a bridge.

How could God let such a thing happen to her, His faithful servant? She was doing GOOD ... how could God allow this to happen?

She expected, like many people, that doing good, being good, is also protection from evil.

On the other hand, Denver was raised an ignorant farmhand. He owed everything to The Man who owned the property, his clothes, his shitty window-less shotgun shack. He was taught that "this is the way things are." He was taught that God stands with you in times of trouble.

In last night's episode of Saving Grace, the writers covered this as well. Neely is coming to realize that God has not spoken directly to her as she'd thought. She's disappointed, crushed.

Neely:
What's going to take me away from here, Earl? From this feeling I have right now?
Earl:
We're gonna stay smack in the middle of where you are. You and me. Face the feeling.

And while that's not the ending of the episode, it is the ending of this post. Cuz we're gonna sit here, you and me, and face the feeling right here in the middle of where we are now.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:40 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 14, 2010

Invisible

cover of Same Kind of Different as Me book

We're reading Same Kind of Different as Me in Sunday school this month. We're maybe halfway through it - it's a book about two guys from poor backgrounds. One "makes it" ... one is homeless. It's a book that takes place primarily in an area I grew up - Fort Worth. And this morning, one of the discussion questions was:

If you were in that situation, how would you want others to respond to you?

The first person to speak up admitted she wasn't sure she could imagine being like Denver - homeless, living on the streets with no education. She wasn't sure anyone who'd grown up as we'd grown up could put themselves in that mindset and truly imagine what it would be like, how we'd want others to respond to us. There was a lot of agreeing.

I'm rarely the first person to speak up in groups. Partly because it takes me a while to gather my thoughts into words - I think in images, little mini-movies and as I grow older, the translation from that into words others will understand is getting more and more difficult. This morning, I was more off-balance than usual because I'd already tried to make a minor point earlier ... and wound up pretty inarticulate and felt that I'd lost respect from some folks I admired. So I was really struggling to piece my thoughts together coherently ... and by the time I was ready to speak, the group had moved on from that portion of the discussion to something else.

Personally, I think while there's truth to saying it's difficult to put ourselves in the mindset of someone who has never had even an opportunity to be educated and is homeless, I think it's a cop-out to claim that we can't do it or at least get close.

I grew up in the 'burbs one town to the east of Fort Worth and at 17, I began making serious plans for running away from home. A part of that planning was to imagine what my life would be like on the street. What would my chances be of getting into a runaway shelter the first night I was out on my own? Would they insist that I return to my parents?

I was contemplating entering a life not just uncertain but completely comprised of chance and uncertainty. I wanted others to see me as invisible.

Now there's a statement of contradictions and uncertainties.

Let me try to explain.

I had quite early on become a master of disguises, showing everyone what they wanted to see - at least to a certain extent. I was by no means the perfect chameleon because I didn't want to be. I always had a very strong sense of self ... but from very early on I also came to understand that it was not socially acceptable to be me. I was too blunt, too matter-of-fact, too practical and too out-of-sync with other children of my age and background. So I learned how to let aspects of my self shine through, but not so much that it overwhelmed people. Elementary school was particularly difficult, trying to learn this balance and still feel true to my self.

But it wasn't just my personality or who I was. It was also what I had - and was continuing to - experience which set me apart from most of my peers. On the surface, it wasn't that different. A lot of kids in Texas had an alcoholic father and an overly religious mother - this was the heart of the Bible belt, after all. But the depths to which the abuses of religion, of body, of mind and spirit went ... tended to set me apart.

I learned how to hide all of that so completely, it was often difficult for me to even remember what I had experienced, much less tell someone else about it. That aspect of my life was invisible, and I liked it that way. Invisible meant no uncomfortable questions about how I knew certain things. No uncomfortable questions about why I was so rarely allowed over to friends' houses and why they were so rarely allowed at mine. No uncomfortable questions about why I didn't "get" the finer aspects of interacting with kids my age. No uncomfortable questions about why I just wanted to be left alone with my Fisher Price to play in my own little world.

So my first reaction while reading this book, was of course Denver wanted to be invisible. When you are noticed, then questions get asked. Well-intentioned questions, but questions that dig up those things which you would like to stay invisible even to your self. It becomes a slippery slope where the better you are at what you're doing ... the more lost you become. The more you have to layer some kind of disguise around you to hide that core of goodness and hope and that spirit of being a survivor and a fighter - because when those things shine through, then you get noticed. And in any kind of combative situation (like the street or prison or the house I grew up in), if you're noticed, you're a target.

Now maybe that is difficult for a lot of people to imagine. I wouldn't know ... it's how I lived for a long, long time. It's still difficult for me to be noticed - I'd far rather be in the background.

So when I first read the discussion question, that was my answer - I would want to remain invisible.

But that's the real paradox of the situation. Because that answer isn't exactly true.

Of course everyone who still has some hope of making a "better" or "good" life, wants to be noticed. I think unless you've managed to completely and totally give up on life, there is that seed within us which cries out to be noticed that we are still good people who have something of value to contribute. Some of us wear that seed on our sleeve and give it constant care and attention. Some of us learned to create a tiny greenhouse, deep inside ourselves to protect and nurture that seed until it was strong enough and safe enough to not be destroyed by outside forces.

Were I uneducated, not able to read, write or do simple maths ... how would I want people to respond to me?

The same way I wish people would respond to me today. Not fear me because I'm different. Not fear me or get angry or frustrated with me because I can't communicate as clearly or quickly as I'd like. Not get angry when I point out that other ways of thinking and being can be just as legitimate as the way they think or are. Not fear me when I tell my story. Not feel the need to rush in with words where silence is perfectly comfortable. Not feel a need to "fix" what doesn't need fixing.

I would want them to take the time to get to know me. To know me where I am now and not force me to come to them on their terms.

If I'd been living on the streets for years and not really known any other life, I would not want to suddenly be inundated with the trappings of modern, convenient life. It takes time to grow accustomed to a new way of living.

If I, being who I am today, were suddenly homeless, how would I want others to respond to me? If I were under a bridge, sleeping in a box, I would want to be completely invisible. To make no eye contact with others in my shame. During the day, when the situation was new, I would want that invisibility to cloak me as I tried to find a way to clean up, make myself presentable and fling off the invisibility as I tried to find employment, cash and a roof over my head while wrapping that cloak of invisibility over the fact that I was homeless and whatever the circumstances were that had caused that to happen. Eventually, if circumstances didn't change ... that need to be invisible would quite likely envelope me completely.

Maybe because I spent so much time in various states of invisibility as a child and a teenager I don't find this difficult to imagine at all. Maybe I'm the same kind of different as Denver and Ron - the authors of the book.

But I think that was their point - we're all the same kind of different. Far more alike than we can imagine on the surface of it. I think it far more likely that many of us have thrown that cloak of invisibility around this area of "what would it be like to be homeless" because we don't want to look at it. It's too uncomfortable and frightening to contemplate.

And that's where I am different from many people. It is uncomfortable and it is frightening. But I would rather think of it now and begin planning on how to take action ... than to be surprised by it later and forced to only react in short-term ways which aren't necessarily the best.

And that's a kind of different I'm happy to live with.

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:09 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 1, 2010

Sometimes the Internet Just Sucks

I got my first babysitting gig when I was 13. It was for the kids across the street, the oldest of whom was my little sister's age, 9. Michael, Suzanne and Alison.

That first gig went beautifully until I was putting them to bed and then it turned into an unmitigated disaster.

You see, while we had a dog when I was growing up, she was banished to the backyard. If I played tug with her or ran around with her too much, Mom would insist that I was "going to make her mean." So I didn't have a whole lot of experience with dogs.

The last thing the parents said before they left was to be careful around Honey-Dog the dachshund. The big, fat, cranky dachshund.

To my overprotective and inexperienced mind, this meant I had to protect the children FROM Honey-Dog, not that Honey-Dog would be attempting to protect the children from me. So, we'd all gotten along swimmingly that evening and I went to put the kids to bed. Michael wanted Honey-Dog to come to bed with him and I thought if anyone should pick up the dog, it should be me.

Inexperienced.

With no warning (even in retrospect, there was no clear warning), she leapt at my face and bonked my nose, making it bleed. I shoved an ever-present Kleenex at my face, finished putting the kids to bed and went into the bathroom to figure out why the heck this bloody nose wasn't really slowing down.

Yeah. Umm.

There were a couple of claw marks or possibly very slight punctures on my nose, but Honey-Dog had actually managed to open my upper lip, nearly all the way through. Well crap.

All I could think was that I'd failed. I'd messed up. I'd done it wrong. My first babysitting gig and I royally screwed up.

I called home and told Mom, "I think Honey-Dog got me."

She came over with a band-aid and some Neosporin ... since I was not particularly specific. When she saw my face, she did a good job of not totally flipping out, but she was obviously taken by surprise. She called Dad, made him come over with my little sister to watch the kids and then she took me to the E.R. - my only E.R. experience of childhood. I got one stitch and the doctor was ridiculously nervous about getting it just right since it was on my face. I was not all that concerned. I mean, I didn't want a huge white scar, but whatever.

We got back to the house, I made Mom and Dad go home and I waited for the Wortmans to return. I 'fessed up that the dog had bit me, got my whopping $6 and walked across the street, expecting never to be asked back.

As it turns out, I babysat for them a lot over the years. Michael, in a lot of ways, became like a little brother to me. So much so, that I often felt guilty for the fact that I wasn't as close to the girls. I would try hard to make an effort to do what they wanted some days and I was pretty sure they appreciated that, but it was obvious that Michael and I simply clicked. We had a lot of the same interests, whereas the girls and I didn't have quite as much in common.

It got to the point where Michael begged and begged and begged me to come over and run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for him and a couple of his buddies. And he was crushed when one of the boys (I think they were about 13 by then) thought he'd "game" the girl. Michael pleaded with the boy to "behave."

You can't "game" a DungeonMaster. I mean, come on. After letting him get away with a little bit of bullshit, I confirmed that he moved through a doorway before the rest of the group. Of course, he was mr. leader-boy.

I rolled a die. Came up the way I'd hoped. "Before the others can go through, you are whisked away into a jungle. The doorway through which you came is nowhere to be seen. And men dressed in green, carrying strange metallic sticks are approaching you."

Yeah. I threw him in the middle of the Viet Nam war. (What? Every doorway in that campaign was a portal to somewhere else rather than a regular doorway. I just tweaked the campaign a little ....)

Then there was the day Michael wanted to race me on my bike. He'd gotten a 10 speed from somewhere and it was far too big for him, but he insisted he could beat me to the end of the block.

I turned around in time to see him go skidding down the street on his chin. I felt horrible. I tried to warn him that the bike was too big for him, that he was going to fall ... but geez. He was trying so hard at first not to cry, but it was a hell of a fall and a lot of road rash. But I think the real pain was he was crushed to have done that in front of me. And in front of his dad. He always tried to be such the macho man for his dad. And don't get me wrong, he was a tough kid ... but he was also sensitive, kind, caring. He wanted to please everybody.

Michael Wortman

When I moved out of the house, I didn't really go back to that house again. There was so much going on in my life at that time, I just wasn't thinking. And, to be honest, Michael was starting high school ... he was hanging out with his friends more and more, as it should be.

I was in my first "real" relationship (whatever that means - in my case it meant 10 years together). I was in my second year of college and had started working full time. I barely had time to breathe, much less check up on the boy across the street.

It was my loss.

I was running a web search for a family member only to discover an article about Michael. Well, not exactly an article. More accurately, his obituary. He was just 37 years old. The obituary says nothing about what happened. I know nothing about his life after I moved.

It's my loss.

Sometimes the amount of information available on the internet just sucks.

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:04 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

February 27, 2010

The Narcissist

There once was a girl with a curl in the middle of her fore'ead.
And when she was good, she was very, very good.
But when she was bad, she was horrid.

Her backyard was a thing of wonderment. The patio was covered by a metal roof bent to and fro like a piece of corrugated cardboard. The far ends of the roof were supported by pieces of what looked to me like wrought iron metal. Standing underneath it during a storm, I would completely lose myself in the sounds the rain made on that patio roof.

Staring out at the yard from the patio and the right side of the yard was bounded by a typical chain link fence. The left was a tall, tall privacy fence with slender boards with practically sharp points - it reminded me of an old west fort. The back fence was the same as the left, but only as tall as the chain link fence. I'd never seen a wooden fence so short before.

But the best part was the old willow trees. The one practically in front of the patio was okay, but a bit sparse. The one off to the left, though ... I played jungle in the branches hanging down every time I went out back. It was interesting how the yard was exotic and somewhat forbidding on the far side - by the tall privacy fence, but open and clear near the chain link side.

The interior of the house excited my imagination just as much - the floor in the den was a wood parquet that I was always dying to take apart. After all, it looked like a floor made out of thin wooden blocks. I always wondered what other designs I could make with the floor if I could just be left alone for a few hours ....

The hallway back to the bedrooms was always dark. The carpet was old and red and had a path worn down the center. I was fascinated by this and would try to walk against the wall, where there was still loads of cushy padding, just to be different. Even the walls were odd. A bit of molding created a frame every so often on the wall. And inside that was some red wallpaper. Maybe some day I'll find a picture of that or try to draw it from memory ... but the pattern of the wallpaper was raised and flocked ... and apparently I was not supposed to pet it.

The front room of the house was a combination living room/sitting room and dining room. The carpet was white. There was a HUGE blue velvet couch underneath a large painting of little boats on a European beachfront. The end tables and coffee tables had magazines carefully arranged, a few tasteful knicknacks and a couple of candy dishes with lids. My first foray into learning to be quiet was trying to remove the glass lid from the blue candy dish to have one piece of hard candy. It was a game I played with myself even when I had asked and been given permission to have a piece of candy.

It really wasn't about the candy ... it was about the challenge.

Everything in that house was a challenge to me of some sort. An exploration of new things. I would crawl underneath the dining room table - a gorgeous Heywood-Wakefield piece with legs curved like the rib bones of a dinosaur - and be lost in my own adventures for hours. Sometimes I was in a submarine, a rocketship or a dinosaur's belly. Sometimes it was a cave.

In retrospect, I was often so overwhelmed by the experience of my grandparents' house in Oklahoma, that I was rather lost in my own little world when there.

This mostly kept me out of trouble.

And like most little kids, I thought Grandma was perfect.

In retrospect that was a combination of a couple of factors. As a child, I largely wanted to be left alone to my own devices. That's not to say that I didn't fall into the tedious "I'm bored" trap, because I did. I did want some attention from adults. But for the most part, if you gave me a project I was interested in, I was pretty self-sufficient and content to be left alone for hours.

Grandma was good at that. We'd go shopping for a few toys or books and then she'd expect me to entertain myself thereafter. She'd give me toys that she felt my aunt didn't want any more (while most of the time she was correct about that ... she also screwed up rather royally more often than I'd like to admit). She gave me my aunt's Mego Batman and Robin and then took me to the store to get some vehicles (and maybe a bad guy - I'm a little fuzzy on that now). These were things my mom considered "boy toys" and Mom would never let me have them. Frankly, I wasn't sure how they were truly different from the Barbie dolls she handed down to me from her childhood, but there it was.

Of course, the stereotype of the grandma in the U.S. is that grandmas spoil grandkids. So naturally she got me special things.

Looking back with adult eyes, though, it was more than that. She would purposely buy the things that Mom most wanted me to not have. A six-shooter. A drum (she'd been very specifically told NO DRUMS on multiple occasions). Various "boy toys" by Mom's definition. All things that made Grandma look good ... and Mom look like an ogre. And it wasn't so much about making me happy ... although she did enjoy making me happy ... but it was often about the adulation and attention she got by gifting me with these things. As well as the opportunity to make Mom feel bad - or make me feel like Mom was in the wrong.

For years, I saw her as my protector. Where Mom seemed arbitrary and overly controlling, Grandma was sure to let me march to the beat of my own drum (that she gave me, of course). Where Mom always seemed to interrupt my playtime (or project time) with an arbitrary chore that for some reason had to be done RIGHT NOW OR THE UNIVERSE WILL IMPLODE, Grandma had no chore agenda for me.

And as her grandchild, that was exactly what I needed.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:24 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 9, 2010

Apparatus

If you ever get bleach in your eye, rinse it out with room temperature water for 5-10 minutes. Then, go to the doctor or urgent care or ER, where they will evaluate your eye and continue the irrigation with a bag of saline. They give you some antibiotic drops and possibly a tetanus shot and send you home.

How do they irrigate your eye? I'm glad you asked. One end of a tube is attached to the IV saline. Then they slip this "contact" lens onto the eyeball:

Apparatus for eye irrigation

It was an exciting Saturday.

Particularly after we finally got home and then had to dig and then push the truck out of a snowbank because someone wasn't paying attention to that either.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:04 PM | Blog | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 19, 2009

Life happens when you least expect it

When I was four, I regularly woke up before my mom. Most of the time, I watched Scooby Doo on the black and white tv. A few times I came across an really interesting show. It was kind of like church, but the man in charge spoke very differently than any priest I'd ever heard before. I knew that Mommy was concerned about my asthma and allergies, so when the man said he could cure anything, I put my head up against the screen like he said ... but nothing changed.

And one morning, I got it into my head that all little kids run away from home and I had not yet done this. I couldn't have been more than five at the time, but I already felt like I was behind the curve.

But where do you go when you run away? I mean there's all these pesky details about it. You need to have somewhere to sleep, you have to find food ... and how is a little kid supposed to do these things alone, for Pete's sake?

So, I decided to go next door. To Megan's house.

I walked out into the winter morning ... and left the sidewalk! Oh the blasphemy of it all.

I knocked on Megan's door. Her mom answered ... pointed out that Megan was still sleeping and that perhaps, just perhaps, I should go back home. Not having any clue where else I could safely go, I returned home. On my way back in the house, I snagged the morning paper and put it on the kitchen table for Mommy.

She never knew I'd been out of the house.

Know this - my mother was ANAL about keeping track of me and my little sister. Most of the time, our every second was accounted for. This was long before the internet. My mother was not so involved in tv as most stay-at-home moms. Her job, as far as she was concerned, was watching our every move.

But a mother has to sleep. In fact, if we're really honest about it, there are many things that we adults must do every day that take our attention away from the things ... or people ... that are most important to us. Ultimately, it's just impossible to watch anything, even our children, for every second of every day. We blink. We sleep. We answer the phone while they wander off into the other room.

No matter how diligent you are.

Life happens when you least expect it.

My sister and I were adept at getting up in the middle of the night. My sister went for the cheese - I went for Mom's Dr. Pepper. We were all lucky. Neither of us was determined to leave the house and wreak havoc. The toddler across the street, on the other hand, was notorious for escaping her stay-at-home Mom, big sister and big brother, running out into the front yard and throwing off all her clothes.

Now, most toddlers go through a "nakkies" phase when they just don't see the point of clothing ... or diapers. Still, it's startling to see a naked toddler in the front yard, running around like a mad thing, enjoying her freedom. Depending on time, we'd either step back in the house and call over to the Koskas' and let them know she'd escaped again or head over and try to corral the errant toddler and walk her back in the house. It's not that the Koskas' were negligent, but there's laundry to do, dinner to make, life to live. And it's simply physically and emotionally impossible to eyeball a child every second of the day.

So a mom and two of her boys were out back the other day. Mom was working with the animals and the older boy was helping. She tweeted from a mobile device a couple of times about her animals and the chores. The toddler was "helping" her and his brother as toddlers are wont to do. Mom sent the older boy to do one last thing and head in while she finished up something else. The toddler had been shadowing big brother. Mom figured both boys were in the house as she headed in.

The youngest wasn't. She ran back outside. The older boy suddenly dove into the pool.

The toddler had fallen in.

Paramedics were called. Arrived. Took the baby to the hospital.

From the chapel where she was panicked and grief-stricken, she posted to Twitter again, the equivalent of "please pray, my baby fell in the pool."

An outpouring of sympathy began. People do tend to be good and sympathetic.

But almost as quickly, came some people recommending caution. After all, how do we know this person is telling the truth? Maybe it's a scam for attention. Maybe it's a scam for donation money. You never know. It's happened before.

Caution where your money is concerned, I understand. But why be so cautious with a word of sympathy?

Unfortunately it only grew worse from there. Someone, probably several someones, took it upon themselves to use this as an opportunity to bitch about how other people parent. All of these mommy-bloggers spend too much time online. They spend too much time not practicing the CONSTANT VIGILANCE that Mad-Eye Moody recommends in his parenting tome, Parenting Without A Magical Eye. Nothing would ever happen to wee little baby children if these mommy-bloggers and tweet-addicted women would just get off-line and pay attention.

And of course, the so-called "mommy-bloggers" grouped together and defended a woman who had only tweeted for prayers. For support. She reached out through Twitter much like a mom in the 50's might have reached out to the church prayer circle. She thought she was reaching out to friends.

The arguments I've heard now are both that she was trivializing her child's death (not long after posting that tweet, she was told he had not made it - so she thought he was still alive when she tweeted) ... and that she was wasting time on the internet when she should have been watching the baby. And, of course, the inevitable tirades about pool safety.

It seems that there are far too many people who would prefer to believe that we are 100% capable of guaranteeing someone's safety.

We live our lives with a thin veneer of fantasy. That we won't be the one to go through a green light and be t-boned by someone running a red light. That we won't be present when our bank is robbed at gunpoint. That we won't be on a bridge when the structure fails and collapses. That our airplane won't fall from the sky. That our building won't collapse and fall.

These things happen to OTHER PEOPLE. Not us.

And it's a necessary fantasy because you cannot live a life ruled so completely by fear of everything that could go wrong. At some point, you have to trust. You have to believe. You have to make a decision and move.

Yes, there are certain measures you can take to be more safe. Yes, you can be aware of your environment and watch for signs that something is off.

But we're human. We are going to get tired, get busy, get caught up in a moment and miss something. If we lead lucky lives, no one gets hurt or at least hurt too badly.

We're discovering more and more that some of the decisions we've made to protect our children are actually harming them. If, for example, they come from lives so clean they're practically sterile, the child is less likely to develop basic immunities. It impairs their immune system and makes them more sickly adults. Of course, a filthy living environment doesn't make them stronger, necessarily.

It's all about a delicate balance. And until something tragic happens, no one really knows where that tipping point of too much/not enough actually is.

Have you seen the movie, Dead Poets Society? The dad in that flick thinks he's building the perfect life for his son. He's going to force him to be a doctor come hell or high water. (Spoiler from hell if you've not seen the flick .....)

The boy tries to lead his own life for a bit, and seeing no way out of the stifling protection his father has created, he kills himself.

(Oddly enough, that actor has grown up to play the doctor Wilson on House, which I find hysterical.)

Our lives are about balance. About doing our best to maintain the balancing act of a thousand different pieces - pieces of history and circumstance that no one else knows anything about. Hell, sometimes we don't even really know what all the pieces are, just that we have to keep them in check, balanced, in order to keep moving forward.

For someone else to judge a mom based on the tiny slice of pieces that her Twitter stream revealed is a ridiculous conceit made by, in my opinion, a narcissistic personality who is sure they know the answers to everyone else's life-puzzle.

And how far this particular story went? Wow. I wish I had the leisure time and then disposable cash to go calling around the country to verify stories I hear on Twitter and Facebook and even on other people's blogs.

There was another, similar scenario this past week.

The headline battered about news services and Twitter was something to the effect of Drunk Four Year Old Steals Christmas Presents.

And of course, everyone starts judging the mother and the father. Without even knowing anything beyond the headline.

The story is heartbreaking, to be sure. But not quite the story you might think from the headline.

The story is generally presented sensationally - drunk four year old breaks into neighbor's home, steals Christmas presents and is found wearing a brown dress, beer in hand.

But a story containing more of the pieces is more sad. Turns out Mommy and Daddy are getting a divorce. Daddy is in jail.

And the four year old wants to be with Daddy.

His four year old's solution was to break the child safety device off a door in his house, escape, snag one of Granddad's beers from a cooler outside and walk in through an unlocked door of a neighbor. There he stole presents, one of which was a brown dress, which he put on, and then wander back out into the night, waiting to get caught and go to jail with Daddy.

Mommy woke up at 1:45 a.m., in a panic, trying to find her little escape artist.

And the comments I've seen people make about this story? Utter bile blaming the mother for not watching him.

I'm sorry, folks, but you have to sleep sometime.

Why do we feel such an intense need to judge others' lives?

There, but for grace, go I. There but for grace, go you and I.

What really kills me ... is the people vomiting forth the most bile, judging the most, vocally lambasting anyone who disagrees with what they've decided are all the pieces and the solution ...

... are the ones most likely to claim that they are fervent Christians.

And as they prepare to celebrate the birth of the Christian messiah who preached love, understanding and cautioned against judging others ... who repeatedly preached on fixing yourself before "fixing" others ... they are spewing some of the most horrific bile.

Honestly, I just don't get it. Rather, I don't think that they get it.

Life happens when we least expect it. Due diligence, preparation, even CONSTANT VIGILANCE ... none of these render anyone safe from harm. Perhaps safer ... but life is as much about luck in circumstance as it is your skill in living it "perfectly."

News Articles:
An article from Florida Today about the toddler who drowned
An article about the four year old who wanted to join Daddy in jail

Remember, if you want to leave a comment here, to enter only the first LETTER of the Turing-Test word. Not the whole word. Just the first letter. :)

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:07 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 20, 2009

No Comparisons

Pain.

We all have it at some time or another. But the funny thing about pain, whether it's mental, emotional, physical ... whatever ... it's not something you can compare.

I see people all the time saying things like how much something they're going through hurts and then they stop and say, "Oh but so-and-so has it worse." As if their pain is not as bad or important.

And the problem with this is there is no way to compare pain. You are feeling what you are feeling and it hurts. You are not feeling whatever the other person is feeling. You can be empathetic and imagine what it might be like, but you're not feeling the same thing.

We feel what we feel.

Don't compare your pain to someone else's and minimize your pain. If comparing gives you a new perspective, that's one thing. But don't negate what you're feeling just because you think someone else has it worse. You feel things differently due to the way you are built - genetics and environment. You might be sensitive to papercuts, but not realize you broke a toe for a couple of days.

The same with emotional pain - it's just not something you can compare.

Don't sell your pain short. You don't have to wallow in it, either, but don't minimize it. Learn from it instead.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:48 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 18, 2009

Contemplations

It's been an odd 24 hours. It started when I was going through my iCalendar. Turns out that Monday, November 22, 1999, I was sick and tired of being tired and sick all the time. The doctor I'd been seeing for two years was obviously ineffective and I was beginning to fear that something was really wrong, systemically wrong. The kind of wrong I really didn't much want to think about considering the fact that I had just finished grad school, was working in my field full-time (even though it wasn't officially full-time enough to qualify for little things like health insurance), wasn't quite breaking $20,000 a year.

I went to a local MedPoint, a place that many here in the area call Doc-in-the-Box and give no respect at all. I went that Monday, after I had finished teaching for the day. I could barely stay awake, but drove across town and walked in around four o'clock. The doctor was an older guy, very together, very personable. Pretty obvious this was his semi-retirement because he really enjoyed being a doctor and connecting with people. We talked, I told him what all was going on and he suggested we run a blood test. I said that was fine - I was curious as to how much that might be but also told him that we needed to do it, regardless. I also pointed out that my idiot "regular" doctor had neglected to run one even though I suggested it. Instead, idiot doctor wanted to run an AIDS test. Because, you know, them queers all have AIDS if they're not feeling well. Never mind that I am in the lowest risk group (both then and now) for someone who is not completely abstaining. This MedPoint doc was rather grumpy when I told him that. He pulled a vial or two of blood and left to run the test himself.

Next thing I know, I hear him on the phone with my doctor. I tried to listen at the door but all I could tell was that he was chewing idiot doctor out. This didn't really bode well for me.

When he came back in, he told me I was very anemic and that I needed to make an appointment to see idiot doctor. If I remember correctly, he made me call before I could leave. Again, this did not bode well for me. I called, but he couldn't get me in until the next morning - it was after 4, after all. This doctor was not happy that I'd drive myself in and wasn't happy that I was driving myself home ... but wouldn't really say why. His telling me that my hemoglobin was a 5.8 meant nothing to me.

So I went the next day to idiot doctor who asked me about symptoms, obviously reading from a list. The answer to all of them was yes and, in fact, DUH, I ALREADY TOLD YOU THIS FOR MONTHS AND MONTHS. With each new "yes," the doctor seemed to sweat a little more and grew noticeably more distressed.

He left, made a phone call and came back still distressed. I had an appointment the next day, Wednesday, November 24, 1999, with a specialist. A hematologist. And idiot doctor said two more things that chilled me. 1) He would treat me for free for anything the other doctor wasn't covering and 2) if the specialist said I needed to go to the hospital, I needed to go.

Shitfuckdamn.

I was supposed to teach Wednesday. I don't remember now if I did go to class or not. It was the day before Thanksgiving, so I probably emailed my students and told them to go on home for Thanksgiving.

The specialist looked at the numbers from the bloodwork, ran more bloodwork and then took a bone marrow sample. This was not particularly pleasant, but not the horror story you often hear.

"Which hospital do you want to go to, St. Joe or Memorial?"

What.The.Fuck.

Under $20,000 a year. No health insurance. Debt coming out my ass from putting myself through college and graduate school.

Hospital was the scariest word I could think of at the time.

And yet, supposedly we don't need any kind of national health care system here in the U.S. Because what we have now is NOT a system of health care. It's a series of businesses out to make money, not to make the nation healthier and stronger. (Best post I've ever read on this is here.)

As it turned out, I was in the hospital over Thanksgiving and finally let out Monday afternoon -- too late to actually teach class dammit. I'd been given five units of blood - turns out a hemoglobin of a 5.8 is really bad. Like you can die in the 4 or 5 range, bad. Also had my first chemo treatment, cuz yeah, it was bad. I had cancer, Hodgkin's Disease.

So I've been sitting here thinking how it's been ten years since I first found out. It's been eight years since I had a bone marrow transplant.

And yesterday, as I was debating finally following someone on Twitter whose name I saw come from nearly everyone's Twitter stream, there was a sudden flurry of her name. @AnissaMayhew

All last night and all day today I have found myself caught up in the ... drama seems like the wrong word, even though I mean it in the traditional sense. But this is no internet drama with trolls and the righteously over-indignant wounded party.

No, I witnessed an outpouring of shock, concern, fear and an immense amount of honest-to-goodness love. It turns out that Anissa had a massive stroke yesterday and is working hard on fighting to recover now.

She and her husband have family coming in from out of town, there are the kids to consider. And no matter what her income and insurance situation is - it won't cover all of it. It never does. If you'd like to donate a buck or two to help the family - even just to entertain the kids with a Blockbusters game or something, please consider donating here.

For more information (and so you can see I'm not making this up), you can read her Caring Bridge page. Or, do a Twitter search for #prayersforanissa ... if it wasn't such a sad situation it would be heart-warming to see all of the love and support going out to her.

One more thing, since I gather this is a favourite word of Anissa's and particularly appropriate for me as well:
Monkeyfighter

As a fellow monkeyfighter, I know Anissa will look back in 2019 and think much what I'm thinking now.

Monkeyfighter.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:51 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 24, 2009

Stepping Forward

Life is a constant cycle of struggle and complacency.

We struggle to establish ourselves, to define ourselves ... and then somehow we allow others to label and box us. (You don't need to go to college. You can't run fast or sing well. You shouldn't have kids. Whatever the stories they tell us.)

If we're lucky, we wake up from that dream imposed upon us and strike out, fight back, look to establish a re-defined self with others. We fight to say, that is not who I am ... listen to me ... watch me ... understand who I really am.

And at some point, the complacency begins again. This time with a new definition.

You see, it's impossible to struggle and fight every minute of your life. So while we often rail against ourselves for allowing that complacency to set in yet again ... it's a necessary resting period, a time of incubation and reflection even if we're not aware that's what we're doing. It's a time of growth beneath the surface.

True courage, the life well-lived, is recognizing when those moments of complacency are over and it is time to act despite how scary that may be. Because breaking that complacency even with a single small fight, a word, a step ... that's the hardest thing that we ever do.

A life well-lived requires periods of rest ... or we burn out without ever having accomplished anything at all.

Do you use your times of complacency to recover and then to reflect?

Or are you using them as an excuse to hide and stop growing?

Is it time for that step forward?

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:18 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 20, 2009

There Is No System

This is part three. For part one, please read "When I Was 30."

Sorry, folks, didn't mean to leave you hanging for a week for the next post, but it's been a crazy week. I probably shouldn't take time out to write this post ... but you've been waiting long enough.

I am good at getting by. I should probably be grateful for that talent, skill ... luck, whatever it is. But I'm not. I'm tired of it.

You see, that skill at getting by was what kept me going with cancer for two years before the diagnosis. Perhaps if I'd not been able to get by, my doctor would have run a simple CBC and questioned my hemoglobin count. Perhaps the cancer would have been caught earlier. Perhaps if I had just quit my job when the welfare worker told me to, I would not have had mounds of bills that I worried about paying even more than I worried about the cancer killing me.

And that skill at getting by started when I was much younger. It kept me from getting help in numerous situations as a child - learning disabilities, problems at home, problems with bullies at school. I saw the look on whatever tired adult's face and knew they did not want to deal with the issue if I could manage to deal with it. Not wanting to disappoint an adult or make them feel like I couldn't handle something ... I always found a way to handle it. Even if it meant that I simply suffered in silence.

Here I had done what I thought were the right things - got a recommendation of a doctor from a friend. A good doctor, supposedly. When I started getting sick I went to the doctor. And things fell apart because he knew I had no insurance. He assumed that I would be unable to pay for the simplest blood test. It wasn't true, but he didn't ask and I didn't know what to ask for.

At any rate, I lucked out and was given treatments. I was looking at a mountain of expenses from the chemo treatments themselves to the nearly week-long hospital stay complete with biopsy surgery, anesthesiologist and X-ray bills, CT scans, a PET scan.

After it was all over, I was hired for a full-time teaching gig - with health insurance. I was making more money than I had ever made, though it still wasn't much. I now had to figure out how I was going to pay off my college debt, pay off the debt I'd run up just living and working minimum wage jobs, trying to buy my books cheaply, fixing my clunker car so I could get to chemo treatments ...

It wasn't going to happen.

I tried to rearrange reality for a while - "I reject your reality and substitute my own" (you have to say this in Mythbusters' Adam Savage voice - but it just wasn't working.

And to be honest, I was tired of trying to make everything work by myself.

I had paid for college myself, mostly. I'd moved out at 19 and began working full time whilst I went to school. Seven years of working full time and going to school. Putting semesters on charge cards because I had no other way to pay and a belief in my future. Car repairs on the charge card because I made just enough to cover bills and have $20 every two weeks for spending money. Then there was the 1000 mile move from Texas to go to graduate school. I sold much of my furniture in an attempt to both reduce stuff I needed to move and fund the gas money and U-Haul rental.

I was doing what I had gone to school to do and was surprised to discover that despite what we'd been told, getting a full-time teaching gig was not going to be a piece of cake as the baby-boomers weren't quite ready to retire and certainly weren't retiring in the droves we'd been told to expect. So despite now having a full-time teaching gig and health insurance, we were a dime a dozen and paid accordingly.

I did what I had to do with a great deal of soul-searching ... a great deal of self-flagellation ... a great deal of telling myself that this was one of those hard choices that adults just have to make sometimes.

I declared bankruptcy. I, who had never missed any bill payment before this. I, who had rarely if ever had a bill paid late (and if so, was probably only by a day or so). I, who was paranoid about making sure there was enough money for bills.

My credit was now toast. I was out from under the ridiculous mound of bills from the chemotherapy, the hospital, surgery ... and from my college bills. And all I could think about was the fact that I shirked my responsibilities. I had meant to find a way to pay for all of those things during college. And if I hadn't gotten sick, I would have paid it all off. I felt horrible for agreeing to treatment, to the hospital, to the doctors, and knowing that there was just such a slim chance that I could pay.

But what choice did I have, in the end? Die or live?

No one should have to make that choice.

No one should skip regular doctor visits because they don't think they can afford to pay the doctor, or for the medicine or treatments if necessary.

And the doctors deserve to get paid for the work that they do.

I do not want to trust my life to an insurance company whose focus is the bottom line and how much money they can give their shareholders and their executives.

I do not trust the office manager who told another doctor (not the idiot I described earlier) that she could not spend more than 10 minutes per patient because it was not cost-effective.

I do not trust the drug companies who wine and dine doctors, nurses and support staff with awesome free lunches and swag so that the doctors will prescribe their particular drug.

I do not trust the drug companies or insurance companies who lobby congress to maintain their status quo and fatten their bottom lines.

I do not know what the answer is. I only know that we are broken right now. Change is frightening.

But dying because you're scared you can't afford treatment just shouldn't be a concern. For any of us.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:21 PM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 16, 2009

Would You Like to Learn to Love?

As I've said many, many times before, I was an odd child. Instead of listening to Guns N Roses and Beastie Boys, I was listening to the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary.

Tonight I am beyond crushed to hear that Mary Travers, who had been battling leukemia, has passed after the effects of chemo and a bone marrow transplant were just too much. It's especially poignant since I've just been discussing that it's been 10 years since I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma - kind of a cousin of leukemia. (Hey, it's the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society.)

I remember going to StarFest in Dallas ... on EDS grounds, where my dad worked for Ross Perot. I was ridiculously excited to be seeing Peter Paul and Mary for the first time. I hardly knew what to do with myself. One of my dad's sisters took me - she was amused at how excited I was, but she was pretty darn excited to be there herself.

A few years later, I was out of the house and the StarFest venue had changed ... but I went again to see Peter Paul and Mary. That time I got to meet Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers. I was shocked. I actually got to talk to them! I don't remember what I said ... something inane, I'm sure. I got their autographs, but it was on a check register or something, which I eventually took for an actual check register and lost.

The only time I would pause on the local PBS affiliate during pledge drive time ... you guessed it ... was when they were showing Peter Paul and Mary.

There was just something magical about watching them perform. Mesmerizing. I could - and did - get completely lost in it and got very upset if someone interrupted that time.

One of the concerts, Mary Travers was going on and on about how rebellious her children were - they married Republicans! I snickered and can remember wondering what the hell - how could her children have done that to her? LOL I guess I'm a little protective of "my" people sometimes. She gave a wonderful and hysterical talk about her kids ... poking fun at herself along the way.

And at another concert she talked about how grandmothers always have a picture of their grandkids. And there's two types of grandmas. One who asks if you want to see a picture of the grandkid and she pulls out a single, nice picture. The second type pulls out a fold-out wallet of millions of pictures. Then she said she was a Hollywood? celebrity? grandma, and so, by definition was excessive. Did we want to see a picture of her grandchild? Of course there was a rousing affirmative - she whipped out a monster sized poster of the baby and everyone laughed. (Also, I think everyone could actually SEE the baby, the poster was that big.)

She went on to talk about all the fun things she'd discovered or rediscovered by being a grandma. It was so obvious that she loved her kids and doted on the grandkids.

Ever since I heard this evening, I've had one song playing in the back of my head. Probably not a typical one that most folks think of, but it was off one of their albums from the 80s, I think.

Would you like to learn to dance?
Well I can show you how
Gotta book here, all you need to know
We can draw the Arthur Murray patterns right here on the floor.
All you have to do is follow.
And then we'll dance around the room a while
You can lead now if you want to, I don't mind.
Nothin' I wouldn't do to see your smile
Go dancin' 'cross your face in perfect time
Go dancin' 'cross your face in perfect time.

Would you like to learn to sing?
Well I can teach you how
Here's an old tune that's good for a start
I can sing all the high parts if I really try
And you can play along on your guitar
And we'll sing together for a little while
Let the harmonies go ringin' in your mind
And we sing so much better when we sing with a smile
All the notes come out so sweet and high.
All the notes come out so sweet and high.

Would you like to learn to love?
Well, that's somethin' else again
I can show you how to sing and how to dance
I have no keys to open your heart
And no way I can make you take the chance.
And so we'll dance around the room again
And we'll sing a tune or two to pass the time
And smile a while and by the time the dance is through
There might be some love for us to find
There might be some love for you and me to find.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:31 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 2, 2009

When I Was Thirty

I didn't feel well. I was tired and run down. I'd been feeling that way for a while, but I thought I was just getting older.

I was 30.

I'd actually been going to the doctor for the last two years. One little dorky infection after another. Nothing big in and of itself ... but I was not a sickly person. So I was confused at this continuous roll of illness - it just didn't make sense. But, I figured I was just getting older.

I threw myself into my work - I was teaching college writing at the time as an adjunct. That's a fancy way of saying "you teach tons of classes, try to do research because it's still publish or perish, and you get no benefits and not much pay either." But I loved it. It was where I was meant to be.

'Round about this time ten years ago, I was ecstatic - the start of a new school year, fresh students, fresh challenges. The promise of a better paying gig with benefits was being dangled for the next school year. I was content. Actually, I was more than content - I was exactly where I wanted to be, or close enough. Naturally, I would have preferred to be in Texas instead of Indiana, but still. I was doing what I loved and thoroughly enjoying myself.

Well, except for not having much money and a load of school debt from putting myself through college and grad school. And the no health insurance meant that these pesky doctor visits were more than an inconvenience, they were damned expensive even though the doc didn't run any tests. And those anti-biotics? Damn, some of those are expensive as hell.

Still and all, it was good.

I got sick again. Good grief. Now my doctor wanted to run a freaking AIDS test. He wouldn't run a simple CBC (blood count - most basic of blood tests), but he wanted to run an AIDS test. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that while I seemed to have something systemic that I couldn't shake, I did not have AIDS; I'd not been exposed to HIV and I knew I was in one of the lowest risk groups possible.

The semester was starting to wrap up, things were moving at a frenzied pace at work and I just couldn't shake the feeling that my doctor was an idiot. So, the Monday before Thanksgiving, I gave up on my doc and went to a "doc-in-a-box" after I was done teaching for the day and was seen by a very nice semi-retired doctor who just couldn't give up the practice of medicine.

I told him what had been going on over the last two years, the constant dorky little infections ... the case of thrush (which actually made me avoid Coke like the plague and just drink water), the ridiculous amount of tiredness I was having.

"We're going to run a CBC blood test, first," he announced in his amiable and grandfatherly way.

"Is that expensive? I don't have health insurance," I explained.

"Not expensive at all. Roll up your sleeve."

He took blood, left with the vial ... came back and asked for my "regular" doctor's name again.

I tried to listen at the door. It was obvious this was officially Not Good ™. But I couldn't really hear much except that my new best doctor-friend here was handing my old ex-doctor his arse on a silver platter.

He comes in with quite the wonderful bedside manner but makes it clear that


  1. He's pissed at my ex-doctor

  2. I am to go to my ex-doctor tomorrow for a referral to a specialist

  3. He's not real happy that I'm going to drive myself home (what? I drove there

  4. He's pissed at my ex-doctor

  5. I am not to miss the appointment with my ex-doctor because I need the referral he's going to give me

  6. He's not happy that ex-doctor couldn't work me in right that very minute

  7. Did I mention it was obvious he was pissed at my doctor?

Oh, and he mentioned that the reason I was tired was because my hemoglobin was a 5.8 on that little CBC basic blood test. Yeah, you can die in the 4 range .... I guess there was a reason everyone kept telling me I looked pale. And here I thought it was just my Irish roots showing ....

Since I only taught MWF, I could have gone in to ex-doctor at any time, but he couldn't work me in before early afternoon. When I arrived, he was sweating bullets. Seriously. This was now officially Really Not Good ™.

He asked me a series of questions: how tired was I, did my rash (the original reason I went to see him was a rash on my calves) get worse after a shower, how was I sleeping, did i get sweaty whilst sleeping at night. All things I had been telling him over the course of the last two years (as the symptoms popped up). He paled more with every answer I gave. He mumbled something, disappeared to set up the referral appointment. Came back to tell me when the appointment was (not until the next day - dammit, I had to teach the next day).

He also said he would treat me for free if I needed anything that the specialist couldn't do. That I was to keep the appointment and ... most chilling ... if the specialist said I needed to go to the hospital, I was not to think of the cost, I was just to go.

Shit.

So, for the third time in as many days, I went to a doctor the next day. Ex-doctor SAID this guy was a blood specialist, but when I arrived, it was a Hematology & Oncology office.

Oh. Feck. Me.

It's 1999; I have a master's degree; I have yet to have a year when I break $20,000; I have no health insurance and have had zero time to build up any savings - hell, I'm still in debt from school. Shit, shit, shit.

They do a bone marrow test and other things I don't recall and then ask me which hospital I want to go to.

Umm, excuse me?

I am informed in no uncertain terms that I will be going to a hospital for a biopsy and overnight stay - at the very least they need to get some units of blood into me. (I believe the final count was four or five units of blood - visitors thought I was wearing lipstick, no, no - that was just the first time I'd had blood in my face in months and months.)

So, the day before Thanksgiving, I'm admitted to the hospital for the first time in my life.

Honestly, I began writing out a will. This simply did not look good. And then, on Saturday, I got the diagnosis - Hodgkin's disease. Since one of my favourite movies as a kid was Brian's Song, I figured I was definitely done for as this was what Brian Piccolo had had (or so I thought - looks like he actually had a different type of cancer - embryonal cell carcinoma). However, the nurse was practically giddy -

"No, no, this is a good cancer, if you're going to have cancer."

And he was right - the cure rate is very high regardless of which stage the disease is in when caught. Which is a damn good thing as my idiot doctor who never even ran a simple CBC had let my Hodgkin's reach the cusp of Stage IV. Actually, I'm pretty sure it was Stage IV, but my oncologist was trying to be as hopeful as possible.

I was released from the hospital Monday afternoon - too late to teach class, which pissed me off. (And I think that's why I wasn't released until late Monday afternoon, too, dammit.) Luckily I had only missed Wednesday's class - and really not many students planned to be there the day before Thanksgiving - it was more of a workday anyhow. So really I just missed Monday's class. Not too bad.

Ten years ago.

to be continued ....

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:00 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 22, 2009

Debt Paid, But Beware the Hidden Fees

On first blush, this sounds like a good local law: "prohibit those who have sexually abused minors from living within 2,500 ft of anywhere where children congregate, such as schools, libraries and parks." (BBC article) In fact, this sounds like common sense. Most pedophiles seem to be repeat offenders operating under compulsion - so just remove the temptation, as much as possible. This Miami law sounds like it's a good thing, right?

Before I go any further, let me point out one fact: I am a survivor. I know first-hand the types of things some of these offenders have done and the pain and long-term effects those actions can have.

That said, the law in Miami which forbids these convicted offenders from living within 2500 feet of anyplace kids might congregate means these folks are living in a tent city under a bridge, because there is nowhere in Miami for them to live otherwise. They are literally being dropped off by Florida's correctional system at the bridge with no money, no water, no food ... no toilet facilities ... they are being issued driver's licenses which list the bridge as their "home" address.

Dr. Pedro Jose Greer of Florida International University (Dean of Humanities, Health and Society) says "This is the stupidest damn law I have ever seen and it's purely mandated by revenge without any consideration for the well-being of these people - who deserve better despite the severity of their crimes."

I agree.

Yes. That's what I said. It is one thing if our justice system were able to sentence someone to a life in a tent city for their crimes - some kind of Coventry area. However, we don't do that. We sentence people to time in jail - and I will certainly be the first to say we often don't sentence them long enough for the things they've done. But that's the way the system is currently. We sentence them to time served and then we say they've paid their debt to society and we set them free. Their rights are curtailed. They are going to find it difficult to find employment.

Their lives are not going to be easy. Perhaps they will be easier than the lives of the children they violated, but that is not the issue. Our justice system is not really built on "an eye for an eye" in a strict, literal fashion. We have instead opted to say that murder is equal to twenty years to life in prison, for example. We have opted to say that a rape equals, on average in the U.S., a sentence of 11.8 years, with an actual time served being more like five and half years. (source, source) We have, in some states, opted to say that aggravated rape is equal to the death penalty (Louisiana). Some states offer to reduce sentences if the convicted will undergo chemical castration - that's another controversy/issue altogether. But our justice system is based on: serve time, pay your debt, rejoin society, debt paid.

These consequences are all things that most Americans know about our justice system and our society. You commit a serious crime, you're going to do time and then you are going to have a difficult time getting a job when you get out. As a registered sex offender, you're going to be required to also tell the system where you're living. In many areas, you are going to have to live a certain distance from schools, et cetera.

But Miami's law goes too far and in my opinion becomes cruel and unusual punishment. What's worse is this punishment occurs after we claim these folks have paid their debt to society. If we want to punish sex offenders more severely, we need to change the laws about their incarceration times because that is how we handle crime and punishment in the U.S.

To condemn these people to a tent city AFTER their time in jail is to, in essence, sink to the level of their crime. The city of Miami is violating people who are already vulnerable.

Think about it apart from their crime: dropped off at a bridge. Under the bridge, you have huts and tents. People living in squalor with no running water, no sanitary facilities ... people with little hope of living any kind of normal life again. Really think about this ... drop off people in an area where they are deprived of everything, an area which is actually worse than prison because now they don't have a guarantee of shelter or food ... or even basic sanitation. Where is their motivation to behave? Where is their motivation to become productive members of society again? It seems to me they have only two intelligent choices: leave Miami (if the terms of their sentence allow it and they can afford to leave, that is), or commit another serious crime and go back to prison where they are guaranteed shelter, food and sanitation. They lose freedom, but gain some security.

We know, from studying modern correctional facilities that many inmates aren't rehabilitated in the typical prison, that instead, many of them learn new skills in illegal activities because they learn from each other.

Let's think about that a moment, shall we?

Is it wise to turn some 70 pedophiles loose together in a tent town where they have no real hope of ever being a part of normal society again? Don't you think at least some of them are going to plan more offenses together and maybe learn from each others' mistakes?

I mean if we're not going to consider the humanity of these folks - which I think is a cruel and petty way to be - at least can we look at consequences of this kind of petty punishment?

In my own petty hours when I really think of what I was forced to go through ... how my entire life was shaped and warped by events over which I had no control at all ... yes, I want petty punishments for those responsible. But I am bigger than my id. Instead I would prefer things like mandatory counseling, stiffer prison sentences, making them pay for the victim's counseling ... up front "fees" that are in line with our justice system's precedents.

It's not right to hold these folks in a kind of double-jeopardy punishment where the sentence served is only the smallest part of their true punishment.

While I would love to see the punishment of sex offenders in general intensified, this is not the way to do it - to tell them they've paid their debt, but now there's all of these hidden fees to pay which total quite a bit more than the original bill ....

And oh, how ironic is it that I write this post as Father's Day 2009 slips away?

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:02 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 7, 2009

Just ... Gone

Spoiler Alert:
If you, like me, didn't watch the 4/6 episode of House Monday night, if, in fact, you have still not seen it, click away quickly. In fact, you should probably avoid the internet completely until you've watched it. That is, if you don't want the big plot twist revealed. Personally, I should have known not to even log in to Twitter today. *sigh*

Okay, so Los Interwebz are abuzz with last night's episode of House. People are talking about the "shocking" death of Dr. Lawrence Kutner. Of all of the various underlings, it seemed that Kutner was the most well-adjusted. He was a geek. He had a great sense of humour. He had some of House's crazy ideas without House's callous obsession with learning the answers no matter the emotional cost (or just about any other cost).

As it turns out, Kal Penn (who played Kutner) has been teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. He was working for Obama's campaign. He's pursuing a graduate certificate in international security from Stanford University. He decided he wanted to pursue political science more than he wanted to pursue acting - at least right now.

That's some of the background.

Now, Los Interwebz have gone bonkers about the way in which Kutner's character was "deleted" from the show.

You see, people insist that there was no warning that Kutner was going to commit suicide. The other characters on the show certainly seemed to think they'd had no clues. The viewers seem to agree and many are calling it a cheap dramatic punch.

I have to say, I very much disagree.

Before I explain I should say something about one of my favourite movies - it relates, trust me.

That movie is Joss Whedon's Serenity. The pilot in this movie is a geeky li'l boy and definitely one of the most beloved characters in the series (and the movie). You can guess where this is going, right? (Cuz if not, it's a spoiler ... ) When we're most of the way through the movie, but still have plenty of time left to go, he pulls off a beautiful maneuver and they all land safely. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. And then a part of another ship bursts through and skewers him. Dead. Major character, major beloved character, taken away suddenly and seemingly without warning. We spent all that time getting invested in these characters and no one writing the show even considered putting a red shirt on the guy so we'd know not to get too accustomed to him. We had no real warning. That's just unfair.

Actually, it's very much like life, which is generally a theme Joss pursues in everything he does. He's not about dumbing down his shows to match some Hollywood misguided concept of what we'll understand or accept.

Now, back to House and Dr. Kutner.

The show has, in many ways, reminded me of some of Joss's shows. It's more "Hollywood" or "network" than realistic, to be sure. Still, the characters are a little more complex than many network shows. Motivations are a prime focus of the show and they're not always the motivations that seem easy. It's a show known for try some intriguing twists - and for tackling some serious issues around the topic of depression.

So. Does it surprise me that the tv show House killed off a major character by suicide? No. Does it surprise me that it was done suddenly and without much warning? No. Was I surprised that Kutner was the one who killed himself?

Yes ... and no.

Do I think there was no warning?

No.

Kutner was pretty well adjusted, yes. And he was a wonderfully fun character. But he was troubled and there was no doubt about that. He was adopted; his parents were shot in front of him when he was 6; he didn't have a steady love interest; he didn't really talk of friends. His ethics were quite questionable - after all he started a website capitalizing on House's reputation - and he talked about depression. In fact, to a certain extent, he defended suicide to Taub in a couple of episodes. Insisted that it was not necessarily an "idiotic" choice.

One writer states, it was "like the writers realized they hadn't done anything useful with Kutner in all this time and decided to make suicidal lemonade out of superfluous lemons." His fear, and I can understand it given the last season or so, is that there will be no overarching impact on the characters after Kutner's death. He says:

But based on how the show's been operating for a good long while now, I don't see his death having any real impact on House, and only slightly more of one on the others. And if I'm right, then Kutner was sacrifice for the sake of a Very Special Episode -- and for an incredibly creepy cross-promotional website (that I'm not going to bother linking to, or else it might help encourage future sites along the same line) -- and that's a waste of a good actor, if not a memorable character.

I tend to disagree with Mr. Sepinwall about this. We've seen some long term effects on all of the characters over the last year - certainly Wilson has been deeply affected by Amber's death. Taub is starting to show some long-term effects of many of his decisions. I think House is as well. He keeps trying new solutions to his pain ... and then gets scared and wants to get back to "normal." But I think something is breaking down in him ... he's beginning to "get" how he affects other people and he's beginning to not like that effect.

However, the show is still a mainstream network show, not an indie flick, and I certainly don't think they've done with any of the characters nearly as much as they should have. There's no overarching plot consistency as there is on the best shows television has offered (shows like Joan of Arcadia, Saving Grace, and even Dexter). Instead, there's a loose theme that runs through all of the episodes, but the focus seems to be the Scooby Doo mystery of the current patient's illness.

With the caliber of cast and writers, someone needs to let them do the show right ... to really explore the depth of these characters and not be so terribly constrained by one hour, once a week. Take a risk and break out of the mainstream and give us the depth we need.

Kutner's death could be a step in that direction. For now, it's a warning shot to all of us ... to remember that we need to be involved with those around us. Not just a surface engagement, but reaching out to get to know each other.

See, no one really reached out to know Kutner. He was the cute, silly geek. No one needed to really worry about him.

And that's how it often is in real life as well. Not everyone slashes a wrist and cries about it. Not everyone comes to work drunk just for the attention. Not everyone shoots up the American Civic Association.

Sometimes they just disappear. Without warning. Without a reason that we can fathom.

Just ... gone.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:36 PM | People Say I Have ADHD, But I Think - Hey Look, A Chicken | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 11, 2009

Do you listen?

Just what the hell is going on anyway?

A preacher was shot Sunday in the next state over. Late yesterday at least 10 people were killed in Alabama. This morning at least nine have been killed in a town just north of Stuttgart, Germany.

Are these events happening more frequently or is the media reporting them more frequently? I can see the pieces of a perfect storm gathering ... and I wonder.

When I was in high school, the "R" word had been thrown around (recession). Times were supposedly hard, but being from an oil-rich state, we didn't really notice. Most of the families I knew were white collar ... and above it all. But I had several friends from junior high on whose families were not white collar, whose families were struggling. And, because my parents were so incredibly tight with money, I assumed we were struggling as well. After all, why else would my mother decide to make my clothes as I started junior high? And learn to cut hair using my sister's head? (And thank all you hold dear I was not the guinea pig for that little experiment. I had enough problems socializing in school without that burden to bear as well. In fact, one of my "nicknames" in high school was Supercuts as it was. *sigh*)

At any rate, I began wondering in high school about the difference between the very rich and the very poor. I paid attention in history classes, you see, and I tended to be more of a "big picture" thinker than paying attention to the tiny detail of exact dates.

Historically, as the numbers of the poorest rise and the wealth levels of the richest increase, the more likely there is to be bloodshed. The poor overthrow the rich (or attempt to) and try to either even things out, or just snag the riches for themselves.

We are rather greedy by nature it seems.

There's not been a serious length of history with the kind of middle class we have in the industrial/digital world now. There's no historical analog that I know of ... and of course, I only had history as a minor in college, so I could be missing something.

But I am beginning to wonder if these isolated violent rebellions are the consequence of a middle-class which now feels downtrodden. So many people have heard and internalized that "you can do anything, you can be anything" and they've taken it to heart. But what hasn't been internalized is that you have to work for these things, that they are not handed to you. And when these "entitlement folk" see someone born to a wealthier family or a celebrity and assume that "that person is lucky," that they just had it handed to them, that they don't deserve it ... the anger builds.

How many times have I heard, "she doesn't deserve what she has" ... "I worked hard all my life and life has shit on me. What did I do to deserve this when he has it so easy?

And if there is no release, if things worsen instead ... that anger has to erupt somehow.

Now, while everyone is tense about the economy, people are getting more and more angry. Some of it is well directed at jackasses like Madoff. Some of it has no focus.

And I'm afraid that there will be more and more of these tiny eruptions of violence, not just because of the economy, but because so many people feel that they are not heard. Their anger is not heard. Their fear is not heard. No one helps them.

From Columbine to Virginia Tech, that seems to be the clarion call. Someone hear me, pay attention to me, make me feel that you are listening and caring.

It chills me.

I remember having to sit next to Chris Caverns every six weeks in homeroom one year. He was a bit of a creepy kid and no one seemed to like him. After the third six weeks ... half way through the year, I finally decided to ask my teacher why in the bloody hell she kept putting me next to this creep. Particularly after he talked of blowing up a tree at the school with a couple of D cell batteries and some spare wires. (I told him that's not how bombs worked and the circuit wasn't really going anywhere. I think I even checked out a book on electricity to show him.)

"Because you listen to him. That's all he really wants, is someone to listen to him."

I often wonder what became of him. Did my listening in homeroom class help him enough to avoid his becoming one of these desperate shooters? Did he find other people to hear him?

Why aren't we listening more to each other? How do we slow down these bursts of violence?

I don't have the answers.

But I'm still willing to listen.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:44 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 7, 2009

Brakes Are Over-Rated

My father was ... is ... an alcoholic. So maybe that one tidbit will help you understand a little better my desire for my own set of wheels. After years of being forced to get into the car in the evenings with a drunk, I was ecstatic to be able to take myself places and not have to worry about Dad's condition ... or Mom's reluctance to leave the house for any reason.

So that rolling deathmobile may have represented freedom to me in a way a little bit bigger than it did to most teenagers.

Shortly after I moved out of the house ... actually, as soon as my mother discovered that I was planning on moving out of the house, she planned on divorcing dad.

At any rate, moving out, getting a set of wheels, meant a great deal to me.

But, of course, in the U.S. it generally takes more than a minimum wage job to make even the barest of livings. I was staying in an apartment complex with a roommate for $201 a month and we could barely make ends meet on our budget. Neither one of us went out clubbing -- cost too much in gas to go to clubs and we couldn't really afford the cover charges anyway. And, of course, I was paranoid about drinking and driving given my dad.

In the course of starting college and filling out financial aid forms, I discovered something about my family that completely shocked me. In 1986, my father filed a tax return just under six digits.

We had a hell of a lot more money than I'd been led to believe.

Now, in some ways, this was a good way to have been raised ... I wasn't a spoiled brat and I didn't expect to be given a lot of things like some of my friends. I didn't expect to have the latest and greatest popular stuff. The Swatch watch craze pretty much passed me by, as did a slew of other Name Brand Fads. And, I expected to work for the things I wanted.

But, I've also been led to believe ... just by the society I grew up in ... that when even an adult kid really needed something, something important, that you could rely on your parents to help you to the best of their abilities.

So, I was driving the rolling deathmobile to work one day, about a year after moving out. I worked at Bizmart, an office supply megastore (eventually bought out by the ever-evil OfficeMax).

I pulled up to a red light ... and my brake pedal went all the way to the floor. Nothing.

I slammed the car into neutral and prepared to yank the wheel into a curb to avoid entering the busy intersection. Luckily there was enough of the brake pads left that the combination of the brakes and neutral did stop me. (The emergency brake had never worked.)

By this point, my parents had been divorced for about a year and my father had agreed to help me with college as necessary and to repair the rolling deathmobile when it broke down. At this point, it had only broken down once and he'd been fairly good about getting it fixed.

I finished the drive to work gingerly, but without any further scares. Throwing the transmission into neutral seemed to be the key to getting enough brake power to stop reasonably. The trip home was a little more nerve-wracking, but no major incidents. I called my father and let him know the brakes had completely failed. It was Sunday night.

"Well, I can't do anything about that now."

"I know, Dad, but should I take it in to Pep Boys in the morning? My roommate can get me to work tomorrow, but I need the car back for classes Tuesday."

"Well ... I don't know."

"Dad! I have NO brakes!"

He sighed. "I'll look at it on Saturday."

I was shocked. I thought parents were supposed to be concerned about their children even after they moved out of the house. It's not like I was going to a private university and sucking the money out of him. It's not like I was driving a BMW and demanding that he pay the insurance and maintenance. I'd already gotten grants for my college tuition, so he wasn't having to pay for my schooling anymore. I was taking care of all of my own bills ... our town had no public transportation and walking was not an option -- everything was just too far away.

This was not a hole in the muffler that I could drive around for a week.

Brakes, I thought, were kind of important.

I got off the phone with Dad and was at a loss. My brain was going like 60, trying to figure out how to get out of the problem I was in.

And then, I remembered what I'd gotten in the mail just a day or two before.

My first credit card. $500 credit line for the college student in need. I got it for emergencies.

Brakes seemed like a necessity. Not having brakes seemed like an emergency.

I asked around, found a good mechanic -- NOT Pep Boys -- and paid the $120 repair bill with the shiny, new credit card.

I never asked Dad to repair the car again.

He didn't call me on Saturday to ask about the brakes.

He never did ask me about them.

Guess it didn't matter to him. After all, he's the one who bought the rolling deathmobile to begin with.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:31 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 6, 2009

Rolling Deathmobile

My family was not rich and I had no pretensions growing up that we had money. We didn't have a pool, we didn't have a family room with a pool table or fooseball, and I didn't expect a car for my 16th birthday as many of my classmates did. After all, in the '80s, we didn't have the $500 for me to go to Washington, D.C. with the rest of the honors geeks or the $50 for the PSAT that could have gotten me a national merit scholarship, so I knew we didn't have a lot extra.

What I couldn't understand was that my parents really didn't seem to want me to have a job, either.

At any rate, I will admit to having more than a little bit of envy for my classmates who drove their second hand beaters to school ... and especially for the ones who drove their own BMWs, Porches, the Alfa Romero and the Lamborghini. But it was an idle kind of thing. I had no idea how I would ever manage a car of my own since I was so rarely allowed to take mom's car, couldn't work and my parents didn't have anything to spare.

So, I was trying to take some vicarious joy out of my mother's quest for a new car when her ancient and decrepit Delta 88 had lived far past its prime. I was completely stunned when Mom passed a book to me advising me how to pick a used car -- we were going to use the money from the sale of the Oldsmobile to buy me a car for my senior year of high school. Ecstatic, I threw myself into the task. We made little checklists of things to look for and examine and set out to various used car lots.

But, everytime I found something within the price range, the answer was the same -- "let your father check it out first. We have to wait for him."

After two months of this, I gave up. I'd get my hopes up over a cool car and be ready to drive it to a garage for a check-up only to be told again to wait for Dad ... and he never looked at any of these cars.

I thought maybe I'd get a surprise for my 18th birthday. Nope. Christmas? Again, no. I gave up completely.

Mom tried to bully me into going car shopping again, but I kept asking her what the point was and she, too, finally gave up.

I threw my after-school time into our drama production and forgot all about it (mostly). The day of our premiere, my grandparents and mom were beaming at me from the audience. A shy kid (despite the hyperactivity -- I'm just a mass of contradictions), my mother in particular was shocked and proud when I'd decided to pursue drama. But I was more than a little surprised when Mom and my grandparents dragged me out of the theatre as fast as they could after my performance, telling me I had to come outside NOW.

About a month early, my graduation present sat in the parking lot. A red Buick Skyhawk hatchback with mag wheels. Only 6 years old.

I was completely stunned. I really hadn't expected to get anything.

In retrospect, I would have preferred a nice pen set. You know, like the 5 other uninspired, generic pen sets I got for graduation.

My idea of a new car had been small, foreign and standard. My father's was small, American, automatic ... and red. Yes, the 18-year-old wanted something more practical and the 40-something wanted RED. And, as it turned out, he bought one of the worst vehicles on the lot.

First, the mechanics on the lot had not yet looked at the car ... it had just come onto the lot as a trade-in from the new car lot. Second, my father's idea of working on a car is to stick his lit cigarette face deep into the running engine and bang on things, so his examination was incredibly intense and thorough. Third, the car had a glass roof ... a "moon roof" that was an obvious home-job. I have never seen any project EVER use so much caulk. (It did, however, never leak from the roof, I will say that.)

Oblivious to most of this at the moment, I was ecstatic. My own wheels! Freedom!

The next day I took the car to a shop to get an evaluation of it. The mechanic walked back out white as a ghost and said, "I hope you didn't pay much for it."

The car had been in a serious accident which had broken the frame of the vehicle. It was welded back together underneath the driver's side door. The mechanic looked at me and said, "Don't ever get into even a fender-bender in this car. That weld could snap at any time and the car will crumple at that point ... right at the driver's seat. Don't even let anyone rear-end you."

I stared at him, horrified, looked back at the car and then up to the moon roof. He just bit his lip and nodded. He didn't need to say it. This car was a rolling deathmobile.

As a result, I was probably a far more careful driver than any of my peers, including my best friend Andy, who totaled out at least two cars in high school and the beginning of college.

Somehow, though, we nursed the car along for about two or three years before the repair bills were $200 every other month, rather negating the bonus of having a car with no car payments.

Highlights of the deathmobile were the time that Mom decided she knew "what was wrong with that car" -- she happened to be reading a book on auto repair ... I have NO idea why because she certainly wouldn't deign to stick her fingers in the engine. Coincidentally, the parts needed for this repair happened to be on sale at Pep Boys ....

Net result: Dad broke the timing chain in his efforts to fix a car that had been running just fine. The car wound up at Pep Boys for about three or four days while they repaired the car for me. However, when driving it on the way home, I took my foot off the accelerator for an approaching red light.

The car didn't slow.

It sped up.

Crap. I put my foot on the brake and it did slow to a stop. However, I had to ride the brake all the way home because the car continued acceleration regardless of whether or not I was pushing the accelerator. I called the shop the next day and complain, telling them they need to fix it. They hem and haw around, telling me they were nowhere near the fast idle choke and that they didn't break the car. I point out it wasn't doing that before they got hold of it. Yelling match ensues in which they think they can bully me because I'm a kid ... bad mistake.

I take the car back and they fix it.

Phone call, "Your car is ready, but I have to tell you that there's a potentially dangerous problem with the vehicle."

I'm thinking, yeah, the frame is probably cracking already.

"Three of the four engine bolts that hold the engine in the car are missing."

At this point I'm sure that they had the three frickin' bolts sitting in the mechanic's pocket because he was pissed that I made them fix the fast idle choke. Of course, they have the car ... and I don't have the bolts ... and there's lots of potholes on the way home. I tell them to fix the car and tell me when it's done again.

Two weeks later, the car is ready. They had to order the bolts. Mmmm-hmmm. I believe that. My father, on the other hand, is ecstatic because they only charged me $12.00 to fix the car -- no labor, just the cost of the bolts. He's now convinced these are the most honest mechanics in the world.

But my favourite story about the rolling deathmobile is when the brakes went out.

Well, really, I guess it's a story about my dad more than the car.

But I'll save that one for another day ... until then, if you see a red Buick Skyhawk on the road ... don't scare it ... it'll fall apart if you honk at it, shattering the inch thick glass roof and probably exploding, creating a crater the size of Detroit.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:22 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 1, 2009

Everything is amazing - and nobody's happy

Via David Airey, via swissmiss. Seriously, listen to this ... give it a think:

He's got more than just a little point here. We can do absolutely amazing things today and it hasn't made us as a society any happier ... it's just made us demand more and demand that things work constantly and without interruption at the same time wanting services and products to be cheap. And fast, can't forget it has to be fast. We don't want to wait any more than we absolutely have to ...

And that's led to a lot of problems.

Take a dear friend of mine as an example. I'll call her "Donna." Donna owns her own small business, doing what she loves. Unlike most people, this means she has some flexibility in work hours, vacation time and so forth. It also means that she can't really take a sick day without serious consequences. So, when she started feeling badly, she put off going to the doctor ... not just because taking a sick day means losing a day's business completely (and trying to reschedule clients' missed appointments means working long, long hours before she feels 100% better) ... but because she also can't afford health insurance since she owns her own very small business.

She got quite ill with a staph infection, was forced to take some time off work and then got better slowly. And then had what she thought was a relapse. She could feel pressure in her head, just behind her left ear and the doctor told her there was nothing there. It built up and built up and still the doctor did nothing and insisted nothing was wrong.

The doctor did this partly because the symptoms she described didn't make sense and partly because the doctor assumed that without health insurance Donna would not want to run expensive tests (that the doctor was sure would all be pointless anyway). Obviously, Donna was just a whiner.

Let me tell you now, Donna's tolerance for pain rivals mine (remember I broke both bones in the lower half of my leg and I thought it was "just a sprain"?). A whiner and hypochondriac she ain't.

Two years go by. TWO YEARS. Constant pain, headaches, neckaches. It's all she can do to force herself to go to work and yet she also takes on a part-time job to try to help pay for all these pointless doctor visits.

How does this relate to our need to demand more, demand things work constantly without interruption, cheaply and fast?

Because we have become a culture of speed and results, we tend to only look at symptoms and not causes. The battery on your car went out? We'll just replace it. Why did it go out? Eh, who knows, just replace it and look it works. But then it goes out again a few months later. Eh, just replace it.

If you take the time to find out why it keeps going out, you will fix the car for a longer amount of time and probably save yourself a serious breakdown issue later on.

It turns out that because the doctors ... there were several over the course of the past two years, many of them specialists of one kind or another ... someone finally listened to everything she said. Instead of focusing on "my head hurts and it's debilitating," the doctor asked a series of questions and Donna gave out the same symptoms she'd been giving out but now thought couldn't be related since no other doctor had put them together. Each doctor she'd been to prolonged the diagnostic process because they only heard selected bits and tried to treat a couple of symptoms.

Had they really taken the time to look and listen to her, they'd have quickly discovered the discs in her neck were screwed up. (If I remember correctly, one is blown and another is bulging.) Bad discs in the neck are well-known to cause headaches. Just think about a time when you've had a lot of tension in your neck ... the muscles tighten and tighten and the pain eventually travels up to the head.

However the first doctor was positive that since she'd had a sinus infection which caused a headache once before, obviously that was the problem ... the fastest diagnosis based on symptom.

But that is so incredibly short-sighted.

Yes, we do live in incredible times where we can get from New York to California in a day when it used to take three or four months.

But we're so used to the speed now that I'm not sure we take the time to marvel at that fact instead of the fact that we're about to miss the mixer for our 20 year high school reunion. (Okay, so that's my dig at myself.) We're so caught up in the N O W ... that we forget the good things about waiting and about taking our time.

Sure, if I'm in a car wreck, I want the fastest ambulance to come and help me. But would I rather wait for the mechanic to truly fix my car ... or just getting it running so I can make it to work almost on time? Why should I waste materials getting battery after battery installed in my car? Doesn't it make more sense to discover that the alternator needs repair in order to keep the battery charged? Yes, it's more expensive to fix the alternator than to buy a single new battery. Yes, it will take more time than swinging by Auto Zone and snagging a new battery. But it will actually fix the problem instead of patching up the symptom.
(Yes, that's a simplistic car issue. Yes, it could be other things. Work with me here, you get the idea, right?)

This applies to so many things in our lives. Take some time today to marvel at what we can do. Just arriving at work is a marvel for many of us. And what we do for a living? Think about how awesome it is to use email to communicate with someone who used to be 90 days away from you.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:21 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 9, 2008

Interesting Times

Tracy complained. Frequently. At least that's my recollection. She would go up to the teachers and complain about seating arrangements. Or a particular student being noisy. And the teacher would "take care of it."

I would go up to the teacher and complain and be told to "deal with it."

Hrm.

When I queried various teachers over the years about this phenomenon which seemed so vastly unfair to my little elementary school self, I was told things like:

"You're stronger than so-and-so."
"I put Chris next to you because you listen to him - and that keeps him quiet. He doesn't act up when he sits next to you."
"You're smart enough to do your work correctly even when you can't hear my lesson."

And, of course, So-and-so complains all the time - I do what she asks to shut her up.

In other words, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

So, I tried to be assertive and squeak. I was told to quit being a brat.

Hrm.

It has always seemed to me that there were kids, adults, co-workers who nearly always got their way ... and those who pretty much never did. And then the rest of us, of course, fell somewhere in between.

I found out years later that one of the kids who used to squeak enough to deserve an entire factory of WD-40 devoted to him, was given leeway because of "his family life." His mom was an alcoholic.

Interesting. Out of a group of four in elementary school, at least three of us had an alcoholic parent and I didn't see great exceptions made for us. Well, for some of us.

What scares me a great deal about the way the current economic bailouts are going is that I'm seeing the same damn pattern. I see businesses and individuals who made stupid decisions, who should have known better, who shouldn't have done such risky things ... getting bailed out.

And folks and businesses who tried to be responsible and do the right thing ... be passed over.

Of course, we're so screwed at this point that I certainly do not have the ability to filter through all of the information and make any kind of decision over who should and who should not be bailed out. After all, if the big three auto makers finally collapse, this country is going to be in a LOT of pain for quite a while. But maybe it needs to happen if the damn CEOs can't pare down their lifestyles. I don't know. Maybe someone else will come in and buy up one of those companies and be able to fix things with reasonable wages for all.

I do know that a lot of what's going on economically right has a hell of a lot to do with greed and wanting to avoid consequences. "Sure, let's extend credit aggressively. The more we extend, the more money we'll make off interest because you know these dumbasses will spend more than they can really afford. And then we'll up their interest rate AND their limit so they can buy more. They'll be paying us interest forever and we'll have a steady stream of income."

Except there's that nagging little detail ... if those "dumbasses" spend more than they can afford, won't they eventually NOT be able to make the payments?

Oh, no problem. They can use a different credit card to pay us.

Yeah. That'll work.

And of course, that's just a tiny piece of the current mess.

We're in a bad situation, no doubt. If we were ... if our government were to let every company take the consequences of their actions in order for them to learn the lessons they need to learn ... I don't think we'd be saying recession. I think we'd be saying the 2000s and 2010s were the time of the GigaDepression. Maybe TerraDepression.

On the personal level, however, it's disheartening at the very least to see these CEOs in their fancy cars and ridiculously expensive clothes asking for government cheese. It's not earning them any popularity with the populous.

And then I hear about the family with the autistic and blind son who had their house rebuilt by Extreme Makeover ... and are now in foreclosure ... Dad worked for the auto industry in Detroit ... laid off ... had to take out either a second mortgage or a new mortgage on the house after being laid off ... after the show had already been through ... after his property taxes went up by $1000.

From the extreme gratitude and hope generated by the show ... to slapped back down to "their place." What right do the masses have to be happy and to hope for a better future? That's for the chosen few.

Not every squeaky wheel gets their own WD-40 factory, it seems.

Too many individuals are slipping through the myriad of cracks opening up in our economy and society. And the cracks are opening up far wider and with more frequency than we can comprehend, much less handle.

And all of this? This is why "May you live in interesting times" is a terrible freaking curse.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:51 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 3, 2008

More On The Pronoun Game

So, a while back, Lisa took me up on my post specifically about an episode of the TV show Bones, called "The He in the She." Her feeling, and the feeling of many folk in the trans community, is that the episode wasn't all that great - some would call it perpetrating stereotypes, some call it not enough discussion. Then, of course, I fell down on the blogging job again and have let the subject slip for a while.

It's back.

First, I'm going to intersperse Lisa's comment throughout this post because I think many folks don't really read the sparse comments here on older posts and I think this is an issue worth bringing to the front again. Second, since we're discussing gender and sex, we need a few quick working definitions. Please note that better and more detailed definitions exist - this is a working definition for the purposes of this post. Sex = your biological sex as reflected by your genitalia. Gender = a social construct of ideas defining how each sex should behave. (I.e., females like dolls and shopping and staying at home with the kids. Males like Tonka and cars and going to work every day and avoiding housework and the kids. Gender roles often are interpreted as stark stereotypes ... the reason some folks insist there are more genders than there are biological sexes is precisely because most people do not fit into these narrow stereotypes.) A fast definition of "cis" is someone whose biological sex and genders match within "normal" parameters. That is, a female might like cars, but also very much enjoys wearing dresses and make-up, etc. A cis male might enjoy cooking and spending time with his kids, but still exhibits primarily "male" behaviours and interests.
Think of it as a continuum instead of as a black and white - one end of the line is folks who are stereotypically "male" or "female" whose biological sex is male or female. And then the other end of the line being a stereotypical "male" who is biologically female and a stereotypical "female" who is a biological male. There's LOADS of room in between encompassing all the variations of human existence. But the end that tends to match sex and gender would be "cis" people and the end where sex and gender appear mismatched would be "trans" people.

Now, I think Lisa made some excellent points in her last comment and I needed some time to digest them. First:

Many cis people like to assert that they're confused about trans people's preferred pronouns, which gives them an opportunity to misgender trans people repeatedly. Asking them to use the proper pronouns is asking them to stop taking up that particular bit of space, because trans people do happen to be standing there and need breathing room as well. That's what my point about taking up space was about. I was thinking of Amanda Baggs' analogy about how people are like water when I wrote it.

This is interesting ... but I had to go look up Amanda Baggs' analogy to really get it:

people seemed to be a lot like water. Water spreads out to take up whatever space the container it is in allows it to take. People, also, seem to spread out in a similar way in terms of what actions they view as okay for them to be doing. And they rarely notice all the space they are taking up, until some person or event makes it clear to them. It just feels 'natural' to take up as much space as they're allowed.

At first Amanda is talking about the portion of the Harry Potter books when Neville finally stands up to Harry and his friends and tries to make them play by the rules. Ron fusses that Neville was supposed to stand up to other people not them! Ron is essentially telling Neville to expand to fill the space somewhere else - and not to impede Ron, Harry and Hermoine's expansions. (We're getting back to the cis/trans and pronoun issue in a moment, hang on.)

Then, Amanda goes on to talk about Irit Shimrat's Call Me Crazy. A psychologist who reviewed Shimrat's book was at first offended and dismissive of Shimrat because she felt that her entire profession was being dismissed and belittled ... and then she realized that her "feeling of being discounted and unfairly stigmatized in this book parallels what Shimrat and her colleagues often felt as patients." Baggs goes on somewhat scathingly to protest that the psychologist's "hurt feelings" are in no way analogous to the experiences of "captivity, degradation and torture" which many psych patients are subjected to.

Now, here we can circle back to the cis/trans issues - and indeed, the core issue at stake in the episode of Bones as well.

Crap, I just used academic-speak, didn't I? I'm sorry. I get carried away when I analyze things. It won't happen again.

Anyhow, I think the situations are analogous and, in fact, very useful depending on the person having the revelation. Yes, there are several degrees of magnitude difference between the shrink realizing that there's a parallel and the psych patient being degraded and essentially tortured. But the right shrink getting that realization can make a huge difference. If they have that eureka! moment of epiphany, then change is possible. Has the shrink felt the exact same way? No, but then we're not actually comparing hurts here. We're talking about understanding.

It's the same when we talk about cis/trans issues. If a cis person continually fumbles with pronouns or worse, insists on using the wrong ones, they are like the water expanding to fill all the space at the expense of the other folk in the room. They're like Ron Weasley insisting that Neville should stand up to everyone except them.

Now here's the thing. To effect a long-lasting change in society, we need both the people who see the small steps - like this shrink who finally sees that psych patients are too often discounted even though her experience of hurt feelings is in now way similar to what Shimrat has been through - AND we also need people agitating that this doctor's epiphany is not good enough.

To bring it back to Bones, we need both episodes like that one which struggle with the topic ... AND we need the angry reaction from the trans community to cry out that it's not enough.

The first is a stepping stone ... the second is making sure we can't then step backwards onto our familiar ground, but that we must continue stepping forward.

ARGH. I've written far more than enough in the past hour and covered only one small portion of Lisa's comments (and the excellent post by Amanda Baggs as well). But, I think this is enough to digest for one post. More laterz ....

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:02 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 19, 2008

The Pronoun Game, part two

When I first met Miccah, it was through a mutual acquaintance. Denise had lived next door to us for a year or so in college and had recently moved into her first all-by-herself apartment near campus. And then one of the banes of college life reared its head: we had a rapist haunting the area - and he'd specifically been targeting the run-down crappily lit apartment complex where Denise now lived. She quickly made friends with Miccah, who did handywork for the complex - and when Miccah became ill and couldn't work, Denise took Miccah in. She did this partly out of a genuine desire to help someone in need - and partly because Miccah looked like Miccah could help protect her from the rapist (even while being sick).

Did you notice I'm playing the pronoun game yet?

I was perhaps 20 or 21, had only been living away from my rather conservative folks and sheltered life for just a couple of years and Miccah's story was beyond anything I'd ever imagined. Denise took Miccah in because Mikey looked like a guy who could take care of himself - and provide some protection for Denise against this campus rapist. But what Mikey had fallen ill with was ... female problems.

Miccah had been born female, but for whatever reason, Miccah's father raised the child as a boy. Registered in school as a boy, used the boy's bathroom, everything. Teachers thought Miccah was a boy. It's not like anyone asked for a physical check. Mikey remembers asking Pop one day why he didn't have a penis like the other boys and Pop replied, "You'll get yours soon. They all grow at different rates, and you'll get yours soon."

Nice, huh?

Well, the long and short of that is Miccah really is more of a male than a female in terms of thought process and behaviour. We can argue until the cows come home over whether this is a nature or nurture kinda deal - my best guess in Miccah's case is that it's probably a little of both.

Who knows how Pop was going to explain away the biological female awakening impending ... as it was Miccah's mom took custody of Mikey at the age of ten.

Imagine this for a minute. Really think about it. Everything you know about who you are during elementary school comes from your parents. And if they've snowballed the teachers into cooperating with that? Think back to when you were ten. All the things you knew about yourself. The stuff you liked to do. The kids you hung out with.

Now imagine your mother coming in to talk to you and telling you as gently as possible ... that you're really not who you think you are. That you are really a member of the opposite sex.

Can you even begin to contemplate your reaction?

Can you imagine your reaction as suits are replaced with dresses or dresses replaced with suits? Can you imagine your favourite doll replaced with a Tonka truck or favourite Tonka replaced with a Madame Alexander doll?

Sure, many of us played with toys that are supposedly "boy" toys or "girl" toys. But can you imagine suddenly feeling like you couldn't play with the stuff you loved best and your mom was forcing you to play with stuff you had no interest in?

By the time I met Mikey, he was in his mid-to-late twenties and I was in my early-to-mid twenties. Maybe five years between us. I'd never met anyone who was a transsexual before. And, with as much as I understood that Mikey would prefer to be a biological male as well as feeling like a male ... I didn't fully understand the way Mikey felt.

My simple reasoning at the time was this: I was cool with Mikey thinking he was a male trapped in a female body. Made sense to me. He didn't seem like a female at all.

But I wasn't going to use the male pronoun in reference to Miccah - because he hadn't had the surgery yet. I fully supported his decision to have the surgery, but until such a time, he was a she to me.

What I really didn't understand was how this attitude made Mikey feel ... and just how difficult and expensive it would be to get that kind of surgery done. I mean, it's not like it's covered under most health plans - and it's not like most people can just walk into a clinic and have it done. It's a long damn process ... and it's damned expensive.

For someone born female to have the surgery involves first finding a therapist who specializes in Gender Identity Disorder. We're talking some long and involved sessions for the therapist to determine that yes, this person does have GID and is a candidate for moving forward. Next, the person has to begin living as the opposite sex. In many cases - like Mikey's - this was a change they'd already made. And for Mikey it was easy. He was built like a guy. Not a football player, but he definitely had that lanky, sinewy look that a lot of 20something men have. If you passed Miccah on the street, you'd have said he, not she.

At any rate, after passing for a year, you have to do things like get your driver's license changed from the birth sex to the intended sex. (Really, this usually happens during the year of "passing.") You also start taking hormones during this time. So for female to male transitioning, you start shooting testosterone. It lowers your voice at least somewhat and often means facial hair growth as well. The body does begin to change and adapt.

Some female to male transsexuals basically live in this state for the rest of their lives. After all, whether or not one has the genitalia that it looks like you probably have is really not anyone's business but that person's and their partner. But for those who do choose the surgery route, there's the mastectomies and then the physical building of a penis.

This ain't for the weak of heart.

Miccah, the last time I talked with him, had never really progressed to the point of the testosterone. He's not had the world's easiest life and every time I hear from him, there's been another round of insane tragedies. The loss of a music career just as it was getting started ... girlfriend troubles (yes, they all know!) ... bar fights ... having to move towns to try to land jobs in music somehow ... having her beloved dog kidnapped (complete with note) ... another dog impaled when he tried to jump a fence to find Mikey. It's never easy.

So there's never been the money and the insurance to really start counseling ... and never the money for the testosterone shots, much less the surgeries needed.

And who am I, really, to pass judgment and call Mikey "she" when it's so obvious that even with the small tidbit of femaleness that isn't even obvious, that Miccah is a "he" and has always been so no matter what the physical biology says.

I've grown a lot in the last not-quite-20 years since I first met Miccah. Today, despite his outward biology, I look deeper. He's comfortable with himself and who he is. Unless you insist on calling him she. Then, he's uncomfortable with you - not with himself. He knows who he is and he enjoys being himself.

Who am I to question that?

Gender is more than our biological sex. It's a sociological set of expectations which change from culture to culture. Some so-called "primitive" cultures knew that some women were born male and some men were born female and they had places for such people - not as outcasts - but places where they belonged.

This insistence on the male provider and the female caregiver is a trope that we've seen throughout history, yes - but the absolute rigid insistence on it is relatively new in history. It's really time and past time that we recognize the diversity of each individual and be glad that we are NOT all the same, that we can learn from the differences in each other and continue to grow.

Were we all alike, we would not have utopia ... we would grow stagnant and boreded and we would falter.

In my last post I spoke about the tv show Bones and in particular the episode called "The He in the She." I laud the writers for having the strength to NOT write an episode where everyone was carefully correct because that's just not how it happens when we are confronted with something outside of our experience - even when we want to be supportive. Instead, we struggle and fumble and get frustrated and call someone "it" in the heat of a moment when we can't decide if we're talking about he or she. It's in our fumblings with what is new and different that we learn and grow.

I know that if I had not met Mikey when I did, I would not have been as supportive and accepting of other people with differences later on.

Even if I did have to fumble with his pronouns for a while. Even if I do still fumble with his pronouns today when I talk about his history. (It's still not easy to say "His mom had to tell him he was a girl.")

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:23 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 18, 2008

The Pronoun Game

I love observing how people interact and particularly with my interest in the autism spectrum, I am utterly fascinated with the television show, Bones. Each one of the characters in the show has some kind of serious issue interacting with other people. Zach, first an intern/grad student of Dr. Brennan, is an obvious example of a character with high-functioning autism or Asperger's - a condition which very obviously meant he had troubles interacting with others. He is mystified by the emotional reactions and actions of others and tries to always live by logic. Dr. Brennan (Bones) herself seems to also be on the autism spectrum, although with her vast experience in field anthropology, she seems to comprehend people's emotional rollercoasters better than Zach - but, it's still from a very intellectual understanding rather than being a part of the whole messy act of being human. She often has conversations with FBI agent Booth where Booth attempts to explain emotions to her. Her best friend, Angela, also spends an inordinate amount of time explaining human reaction and foibles to her - often attempting to explain to Brennan why she herself is reacting a particular way.

Angela and Booth, however, aren't paragons of perfect human interaction either. They also have their very flawed and confused interactions. Angela has embraced the idea of being a "free spirit" and artist so much so that she often reacts primarily out of a stubborn desire to stay within the confines of her definition of "free spirit & artist." When she reacts illogically and emotionally, she does so without apology or, often, explanation. It is what it is. And, this eventually leads a character who often appears to be the most normal in her interactions into a rather stupid decision (to break up with Hodgins).
Naturally, she's somewhat the opposite of Brennan, creating a nice foil.

FBI agents are rarely known for their stellar social skills, so it's not surprising that Agent Booth also has his issues interacting with others although he does have a wonderful ability to read his suspects - an ability that usually confuses Brennan. Booth reads people's tells and body language when they're being questioned ... but he still finds it difficult to do the same with the people he knows.

While the show is technically a crime solver with a different twist from the CSI genre (since almost everyone in the show is a "squint," or scientist, instead of law enforcement), the real interest and drama of the show (not to mention comedy) is to look at how these people relate to each other - particularly how they screw up these interactions. In one episode, the murder Booth and Brennan are investigating involves "pony play." Apparently some people like to pretend they're horses for their sexual excitement. (Frankly, I could have lived my life without knowing that ... but there you are.) Booth is as startled and somewhat confused by this as I was ... Brennan, on the other hand, reacts as an anthropologist studying a new tribe. She explains in scientific terms to Booth what these people get out of it and why they do it - she looks like she understands - but she explains chunks of it in front of the pony play folk, which offends them. Booth understands why it offends them, but he's flabbergasted and somewhat judgmental about them - so he looks like he understands their reactions, but he also offends them in a different way.

In other words, they both understand a piece of the human relationships - but they're completely separate pieces and neither has the whole thing.

It's fascinating to watch.

My favourite social gaffe was when Brennan walked into an interrogation room with Booth to speak with a profoundly overweight character. She immediately said something to Booth about how people who are profoundly overweight often have a funky odour because they can sometimes get a fungus in between the folds of skin. Booth is horrified that Brennan would say such a thing where the character can hear. Brennan protests, "but it's true" as if that makes it okay. It's not that she is trying to hurt the character ... she just doesn't see scientific fact as causing emotional hurt. If it's true, then it shouldn't hurt. In fact, Brennan goes on to point out to the character the very real health problems caused by such a level of obesity and tells her that she should lose weight.

Of course the character is offended and Booth is horrified all over again, trying to get Brennan to STFU. Despite all of her knowledge of how people work from her anthropology studies ... Brennan is completely clueless to the reactions she causes. She looks like a complete ass in this scene, once again underscoring what I feel is the point of the show: how we interact.

So, knowing all of this about the show, I was somewhat surprised to read on Womanist Musings a reaction to one of the more recent episodes, "The He in the She." Since Brennan is a forensic anthropologist, she and her team at the Smithsonian are often called in to help solve murder cases where the remains are in a rather bad state. In this particular episode, we're confronted by either a grad student making a weird mistake or a very unusual set of remains. The new intern (to replace Zach, who is now incarcerated) declares that according to the bones on this set of remains, the person was male.

The team's boss, vetting the new guy as he does his examination, blinks at his declaration. She announces the body is female because "that," she points out, "is a vagina." He insists the bone structure is male.

They're both right.

The remains belong to someone who had been born male and then underwent sexual reassignment surgery to become female.

As the team begins to piece together the mystery, there's some amount of stumbling around the entire transsexual issue. Agent Booth in particular has a difficult time - not with the victim being trans - but with trying to settle on a pronoun. At one point in his fumbling, he begins to call the victim "it" causing Brennan to squawk about giving the victim some dignity. Booth spends a fair amount of time trying to fumble his way through his reasoning and why he's settled on "it" for now. The other characters are clearly irritated with him over this. At another point, he fumbles around and claims that they should always call "him" "her" because that's what "he ... she was when she died and she deserves some respect."

Now the author over at Womanist Musings has an excellent point - it's annoying as hell that when American television portrays a transsexual person, that person is either the comic relief or the victim of horrible tragedy, but never just another person, just another character. But, I remember not so long ago when that was true of all gay characters. Now, however, we're seeing more gay characters who are "just" characters - not there just for comic relief ... not there to show the terrible plight of the queer. (Where I disagree with the author is that the writers of the show were somehow disrespectful to the issue of transsexuals.)

That's pretty much the way it happens on American television. Bring in the marginalized as comic relief, bring them in to show the tragedy ... until the mainstream viewers get used to seeing that group ... and then they can be just characters like everyone else. It's annoying, I certainly agree.

But I think that Bones did this in a really interesting way. First of all, the show revolves around odd forensic mysteries - what's more unusual than a body with both male and female "tells"?? Secondly, you have scientists having to grapple with pronoun because it's got to be jarring to look at a male knee and say "she." It's not that they're being disrespectful or rude - they're reacting to the biological part in front of them at the moment when they speak.

And then, of course, you have the very Catholic Agent Booth trying to grapple with the facts he's getting from his squints ... and with the real confusion of speaking of the transsexual person's past. After all, the history of Patrick could be important to the death of Patricia and it is honestly confusing or difficult to switch between talking about Patrick as "he" when he was an evangelical minister ... and Patricia's ministry and her death.

The characters constantly have to flip back and forth between his history and her history as they put together the facts and clues in the case.

I think this very much mirrors the confusion that many people go through when they first meet someone who is transsexual. It's not that the writers or the characters of Bones were making fun of or somehow disrespecting transfolk as they were reflecting how we react. To me, that made the episode a really important and valuable one rather than one which somehow negated the dignity of transfolk - it attempted to bring the issue to an audience which might not know about it, or which might be rather hoping to avoid it. It was an episode to raise awareness and show us our human foibles and fumblings through the reactions of some wonderfully rendered and flawed characters.

Next time, I'll tell you about the first time I met someone who identified as transsexual ... and how I reacted.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:02 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 8, 2008

Fifteen Months Later

Fifteen months is taking its toll on this blog. You would think that not having a steady gig would mean I had more time to write. Unfortunately, it means that I'm not getting the constant stimulation I need to be able to write. Despite the wide variety of topics and issues I would normally need to write about ... I am oddly quiet.

Every sentence I start to write about how my partner and I actually bought a house we could afford instead of doing what many of her co-workers did ... buying the house they were loaned money for, along with two brand new cars ... I think, "I should be working on promoting Oppositional Design" ... or "I should be reading my Typography book" ... or "I should build a newsletter or a new logo or something just to add it to my portfolio." Or, even worse, "I should clean the house."

After an incredibly warm job market a few weeks ago, I'm back to wondering where I've gone wrong and if it's something I can change or is it just this crappy economy?

I have no way of knowing.

I really wish I'd manage to land the job doing emailers for a large musical instruments company. I think I could have had a LOT of fun doing that ... but it was apparently not meant to be. Again.

I am profoundly grateful that my partner still has a job. I wish she could get out of there as it's, I feel certain, contributing to her constant migraines ... but there's little out there for her, either. The market is simply too tight.

I am profoundly grateful that we purchased a home within our means - and that we were somewhat conservative about what those means were. Sure, I'd love a home with normal dimensions instead of something so small - but we can afford this and it's ours.

I'm not a big stats person ... but I do feel regret that I've managed to slip from a pagerank of 5 back down to a 3. I'm no longer getting 500+ hits a day ... I'm lucky to get about 200. And while I still get hits for those damn Red Monkey jeans - I get more hits from Nerfers about modifying their Nerf guns now. (And most of them want to bitch at me and miss my point altogether. Let me repeat: I DO NOT WANT TO BAN NERF GUNS OR NERF WARS. Geez. I just think more parents should be more aware of what their kids are doing and what they're playing with. I also think that there is no such thing as a "toy" sniper rifle. On the other hand, I enjoyed modifying my Nerf Maverick into a steampunk looking thing.)

The blog is a bit adrift and aimless at the moment and I apologize to all of my readers, old and new. Right now, I'm afraid that I am a bit adrift and ... not exactly aimless ... but feeling somewhat lost.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:54 AM | Blog | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 31, 2008

#Gustav

Last year, a small group from our church and a couple of other local churches in our denomination made the two-day trip down to Lake Charles in Louisiana to do what they could to help the area so devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This was not some mission of proselytizing. This was not to further any personal agendas or create new members. It was purely and simply a work trip to help out those in need.

When they came back, there was an even bigger push for our tiny church to continue working. This time, we were put on the schedule to work the 9th ward in December of '08. (And also to go to New Mexico.)

Now, I fear, it won't just be Katrina that our folks help to clean up. Three years later, New Orleans has not fully bounced back. There are tent shanty-towns. There are numerous houses still marked for demolition. The stories of crime and corruption have depressed me beyond belief. Contractors who accepted jobs and payment ... and then disappeared into the night. The ACE stuffing newspapers into levees instead of dirt. Graffiti artist Banksy even came by for some satire (don't know how long this link will reflect New Orleans.)

Because of my allergies, I'm not going on the New Orleans mission trip. I still have no job and no health insurance and I'm highly allergic to mold and mildew. Humidity triggers my asthma. Louisiana, at the best of times, is not a great environment for me, despite the fact that I'm sure I would love it.

But, our pastor is from Louisiana. From a little town on the Cane River (the same town featured in the movie Steel Magnolias). And now I have blogger friends and Twitter friends who live in or near New Orleans. All of these connections have caused me to pay even more attention to an area for which I already had a deep interest. (I may be more or less allergic to the whole damn place, but I've always been utterly fascinated by it and its history.)

Now, of course, Gustav is menacing the coastline again. One friend writes of her "concern for New Orleans. And all of our lives thereafter. I wonder how we can come back and live where Cat 4's and 5's are apparently a real potential threat every damn season. I wonder how this can't be an effect of global warming. I wonder where we'd move if we decide to forsake our beloved motherland."

You see, for all of the smart-asses who say that if you live on the coast, you have to be ready for "these storms" -- the problem is not a single category four or five hurricane. It's the increasing frequency of such hits. It's the fact that some of the people in power got complacent. The levees were famously unready for a Cat5 and the surge. But no one wanted to actually spend the money to prepare for an "eventually" or a "maybe." And now the area pays the price.

I have heard people say that this is what happens when you live in a low-lying area on the coast and they could choose to live somewhere else.

But I think the better question is why is this happening so frequently now? Haven't we had some personal hand in this? Global warming ... building the levees to change the coastline and waterflow ... making former swamplands into building land ...

In a country known to take rugged individualism to a fault and perhaps even to a vice - how can anyone in the States say something so stupid and callous as "if you don't like it, leave"? Isn't the driving force of the United States to change that which we don't like? To improve it?

Hell, the Puritans didn't leave the U.K. for the eventually-to-be U.S. until they were forced. We are a stubborn country based on the belief that we can effect change and inflict our will. Leaving before we are unequivocally forced out is simply not in our social DNA.

It's a complex problem, not a simple one. We need to figure out the complex problem of why there are "suddenly" so many huge hurricanes bearing down. Did we contribute to their creation? Can we slow down the frequency of them without causing damage to our eco-system? Can we stop doing something or start doing something which will help? And if we find something that will help this issue - can we be sure it won't cause other ones?

On Twitter, #gustav is the hash code ... frankly, I have enough of an idea from the people I Twitter with. I don't want to look for further conversations which will only depress me. I have tasted a slice and it is both bitter and frightening.

Meanwhile, I am hoping that Gustav's introduction to the States is all bluster and no substance. That everyone stays safe. That our church's mission group truly goes to the 9th ward to clean up the aftermath of Katrina ... not Katrina and Gustav.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:47 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 31, 2008

Attempting to Release Steam

You've heard of counting your blessings, of course. This is the opposite. I'm attempting to exorcise all the crap that pretty much completely overwhelmed me to the point of serious meltdown yesterday.

The list:

  • I was laid off July 11, 2007
  • I enjoy freelance projects, but I suck at marketing myself so that I will land them
  • I spiral fractured both bones in my "good" leg June 4
  • I can't put weight on that leg for at least another two months.
  • There are few jobs in this area for designers - and approximately 80 people applying for each opening
  • There are no jobs in this area for writers
  • The hospital wants $23,000 for the surgery on my leg - the good news here is that they do have an assistance program which I'm trying to get worked out now
  • There's probably another $1000 to $2000 in bills from X-ray and anesthesia - I'm afraid to open them
  • Our house is so small I can barely get through it with my current limited mobility
  • My unbroken leg has a bad knee and ankle - and it's totally stressed out from doing all the work now.
  • The server hard drive died a foul death today. There will be no printing until I get a new one installed.
  • I just found out that two of my best friends are either getting divorces or the break up is fairly certain.
  • I can't drive anywhere and can't really take public transportation, either.
  • I had a heckuva time attempting to get a ride to the doctor's office for my appointment today.
  • I would love to get the cast off and get into a boot today. But I know that's not going to happen.
  • My li'l baby Scoutie girl is at the vet's. She has a back problem and they are giving her IV steroids and they're hopeful she should recover. I, however, am a total mess over that.
  • Just got a rejection letter after yet another job interview.

Okay. Let's hope that's all out of my system and my luck turns around now. It'd be nice.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:40 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 18, 2008

Balance

Surgery is over and done with - a plate on each bone and more screws than I want to think about. I am now truly screwed. (The obvious sometimes must be said.) I'm moving around much better now that my foot is actually connected to my leg again.

I worried most of yesterday about whether or not I'd really be able to make the mission trip to the Dinetah (Navajo lands) in New Mexico. The discharge process was long and ridiculously drawn out, leaving my leg down and poorly balanced for far too long. By the time I got home, every slight jar hurt like hell and I didn't think I'd be able to handle the 3 day drive.

Today, however, things are much better. The only real problem is when my muscles jerk. You know, you've seen the crazy commercials about Restless Leg Syndrome, right? It's one of those disorders that people make fun of because it just sounds so stupid.

Unless you're trying to sleep and your body jerks you awake. And then you try to sleep and your body jerks you awake.

Now think about your newly operated on leg ... and the muscles twitching or jerking. The movement would wake you up anyway, but add the pain to that and ... whooooo boy-howdy, buckeroo, that ain't the way to get good rest. Luckily the pain lasts just a moment and the aching that comes after doesn't last too long either.

Tomorrow afternoon we're having friends come over to watch the cats ... and we're heading out to the Dinetah. I'm so excited I could just explode. Of course, with all the mess the last two weeks, we're not as prepared as we'd like to be and sadly this means the other half is running around like crazy trying to get everything set. I feel horrible because I need all sorts of stuff out of what we've taken to calling the "disaster room" and I can't get in there to get what I need. I've got to finish printing out some references to work on some art whilst I'm gone. (Not that I'll have much free time except during the van drive.) Then she'll have to go back in the room, dig out the good resume paper so I can print out 3 copies of my resume and 3 cover letters so I can send those out while I'm in New Mexico so I can keep my name out and about.

We've got to make sure the doc called in another refill on the pain meds - because it would be BAD to run out whilst on the trip. Hopefully I won't need more than what I already have ... but I don't wanna chance some 25-30 hours in the van on the way home without pain meds. So, I have to make sure the doc calls it in - and the other half picks it up. We need a couple of house keys to give to the friends who are going to stay here whilst we're gone. I should get to the bank one last time and I need to snag a couple of disposable cameras. And the other half needs to dig through the disaster room to pull out my backpack.

I hate relying on someone else. I'm not good at it. I can't help but feel guilty if someone else "has" to do something for me.

But for the next 10 days, I suppose I'll be attempting to learn the balance between helping others ... and letting others help me. Probably be even more of a learning experience for me this way than it would have been otherwise.

At any rate ... it'll be quiet here for the next 10 days. For the first time in years, I'll be completely disconnected from the computer. No 'net access where I'm going. No email. No web. No blogs. No BBC Online.

Me, off-line for 10 days. Wish me luck.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:22 PM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 19, 2008

Draw the Arthur Murray Patterns

They say (you know, the infamous "they" who do and say everything) that things come to you when you're ready for them. I've often found that axiom particularly annoying and not altogether true. I was certain I was ready to read Joyce's Ulysses the instant my eighth grade English teacher said it was not to be read by anyone under about 20-25, because you had to be older to understand it. I was livid when I discovered that our junior high library did not, in fact, have a copy. Somehow, to this day, I still haven't actually read that book. I think now, perhaps, I'm afraid that I will not understand it - at 13 I was positive I would.

The first research project I did as a junior in high school, liked to kill me. I wanted absolutely all of the information about my issue - did Atlantis ever really exist or not - on the table before me. How could I possibly write the definitive answer of Atlantis without having EVERYTHING in front of me? Thank goodness for Mrs. Critzer's schedules. She knew, through years of teaching privileged suburban honours students, that many of us earnestly tried to be thorough, to do it all. She declared a date whereafter we were to turn in our notecards and STOP research. She made a little mark on each notecard - lord, she must have been blindly making marks late into the night to get through all of our research - and handed them back to us a day or two later. Now, she said, we absolutely had to begin writing if we had not already. She'd marked our notecards. No more research allowed. Later, I tried to help my students learn the same lesson when I taught writing.

You make do with what you have, you see. You never have all the facts or stories or theories.

It was the same when I tried to work through childhood issues - I wanted everything laid out on the table for me to pick through, to rail over, to mourn over, and to laugh over.

Would you like to learn to dance?
Well I can show you how
Gotta book here, all you need to know
We can draw the Arthur Murray patterns right here on the floor.
All you have to do is follow.
And then well dance around the room a while
You can lead now if you want to, I don't mind.
Nothing I wouldn't do to see your smile
Go dancin cross your face in perfect time
Go dancin cross your face in perfect time.

My mother and I were both very alike and very, very different and it caused us no end of sorrows whilst I grew up. She wanted a Leave It To Beaver life ... and she got something closer to Married ... With Children, I think, at least in the disparity between the two shows, if not the reality.

The husband she left secretarial college for turned out to be a drunk who was addicted to "nighttime activities." She was a devout Catholic who'd seriously contemplated the contemplative life. Several years after their wedding - and much trying - I finally came along. The "perfect" baby girl. She was terrified and yet determined to do everything exactly right.

Naturally, I was most emphatically NOT the perfect baby girl. By all accounts, I was a relatively quiet and happy toddler - but I had a distinct personality, stubbornness, independence and penchant for climbing everything. I was in a hurry to grow up and do it myself.

My mother thought she was getting a docile child she could dress in fancy dresses, teach to sew and cook (even though Mom was not particularly fond of those things herself).

I was interested in airplanes (particularly F-16s and F-15s and the Air Force Thunderbird team), in toy cars, in being outdoors and getting dirty.

Mom and I were really, really not ready for each other.

There were fights over hair, over clothes, over toys, over activities - neither of us understanding the other at all. She did not understand why I was so stubborn - I did not understand how she could say "you can be anything you want to be" except for all the things I loved most. It was definitely a dilemma of the 70s.

In addition to that, my mom fought depression and battered wife syndrome - not that I ever saw any physical battery, nor bruises or sunglasses later. But I heard how he belittled her and undermined her confidence. You could sense the threat of physical violence in his tightly coiled muscles some days, barely under the surface, like a gator ready to strike - that sudden, violent surge out of the water and at the prey perhaps more terrifying than the actual bite.

It must have seemed to her like nothing in her life could go right.

Her second daughter, however, was more pliable - the girly-girl she'd wanted to begin with. They bonded over the shared things that many mothers and daughters bonded over - and rightly so. They had shared interests and commonalities that I did not share with them. But it also meant that I became an outsider without any of us really realizing it or understanding what had happened.

My mom and my sister shared a love for music and singing - I also shared that, but given the extent of my allergies, my sinuses were always so clogged that I often couldn't hear myself accurately, which meant I was off-key without knowing it. None of us thought that through, and eventually, I stopped sharing my music with them - I couldn't take being made fun of for something I couldn't hear, couldn't help.

Would you like to learn to sing?
Well I can teach you how
Here's an old tune thats good for a start
I can sing all the high parts if I really try
And you can play along on your guitar
And well sing together for a little while
Let the harmonies go ringin in your mind
And we sing so much better when we sing with a smile
All the notes come out so sweet and high.
All the notes come out so sweet and high.

My mom and my sister shared a love of clothes (although I'm not sure anyone can spend as much time looking at clothes as my mother). I could, for the most part, care less. Jeans and a t-shirt and I'm good to go. I want my clothes to fit. I want them clean. I want them presentable. But I don't really care what I wear.

We all shared a love of reading, but I left Phyllis Whitney and Nancy Drew behind for the Hardy Boys and then biographies and manuals on electronics ... and finally science fiction and sometimes horror. My mother was puzzled and tried to interest me in beloved classics - Roller Skates, a 1937 Newbery winner. That was only the second book in my life up to that point that I could not force myself to finish. (The first was either Emil and the Detectives which I found terribly yawn-o-riffic or Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.)

We were not always polar opposites, but there was, nonetheless, a sense of puzzlement, frustration and sadness that shaped our relationship.

But the real mystery to me was always: why had she not divorced Dad?

The answer was that she was simply not ready. It was a terrifying thought to be on your own with no college degree, no "real" skills, no self-confidence, and know that you had to raise two girls on your own. She had grown quite used to the middle-class lifestyle and even while she abhorred "keeping up with the Joneses" (one of the worst sins in her personal catechism), she enjoyed the amenities she allowed herself.

It wasn't until she knew I was leaving that she finally had what she needed to act as well. She'd been building herself up for this for several years prior and while she didn't think she was ready - she was ready.

And that only solidified my bitterness. What can I say? I was 19 and while I didn't think I knew it all, I thought that I did understand our family.

It has taken me another 20 years now to realize that I only now understand something of the depth and scope of our family ...

... but you work with what you have.

At 19, I simply wanted my mother to take some responsibility for her actions. I wanted to hear her admit - and mean it - that she had made mistakes. I wanted to hear her say she was sorry for some of the stupid stuff - for telling me we didn't have the money for me to go on a school trip to Washington, D.C. For telling me that taking Band class was too expensive and we couldn't afford it. The bald-faced lies. I wanted her to own up to those.

At 19, did I think she had ruined my life? No. I was not that arrogant. In my early-to-mid 20s, I wrote Mom a letter, telling her that I was tired of playing the games we'd always played, of dancing around truths. With the bluntness of youth, I attempted to get her to understand that her actions had had a profound effect on me.

It was arrogant of me to think she had not realized that. And yet, she'd never given me any indication that she had. How was I supposed to know? You write your papers based on the research you have at the time.

Of course, she over-reacted. I was blaming everything that was wrong or bad in my life on her. I thought she was evil, a Mommy Dearest.

Faced with her self-flagellating tirade that flogged me as much as it did her, I stared at the words I'd written and tried to figure out how I could have screwed them up so badly that she would think these things that I had not said, had not meant.

You see, she wasn't ready to hear those things. Sometimes we do receive things before we are ready for them.

We stammered along for years, trying to get the other one to understand our point of view - instead of trying to open ourselves up to the other person's point of view.

It's been a steep learning curve for both of us. Took my not telling her things in an immediate fashion for her to realize how far apart we'd traveled. (Apparently if you get put in the hospital with some unknown something the day before Thanksgiving and your mom lives 1000 miles away, you're supposed to call her instantly and "ruin" the Thanksgiving weekend with worry over the unknown instead of waiting until you get out of the hospital Monday and finally have a diagnosis. Apparently mothers don't like that. Who knew?) But now she knows she cannot control my every move and if she tries too hard to continue controlling me, I could simply ... fade away.

Would you like to learn to love?
Well, thats something else again
I can show you how to sing and how to dance
I have no keys to open your heart
And no way I can make you take the chance.
And so well dance around the room again
And well sing a tune or two to pass the time
And smile a while and by the time the dance is through
There might be some love for us to find
There might be some love for you and me to find.

For me, it's taken a long time to understand the battered wife syndrome and apply that to my mother. To really begin to understand the paralyzing fear and lack of confidence which caused her to stay in an intolerable situation when she should have left.

They say (you know, the infamous "they" who do and say everything) that things come to you when you're ready for them.

This past week, our church prepared for an incredibly busy week. We had a rummage and plant sale scheduled for Saturday. A wedding rehearsal Friday and the wedding itself Saturday. A huge congregational meeting Sunday and a big mission trip meeting as well. Our rummage sales take us a full week to get ready - get all the rummage sorted, out in the appropriate areas and priced. There's electronics (generally that's my room) to test and verify prices on. The rummage spans all four meeting rooms at one end of the church, the circular "hallway" which connects to all of those classrooms, the long, narrow hallway which connects that area to the sanctuary, the sanctuary itself gets filled with clothes AND the large item stuff outside. It's a BIG deal. We had to get that all prepped, then do a rehearsal for a wedding with all those tables of clothes in the sanctuary - which, of course, freaked out the poor couple despite our protestations that the church would be all nice and neat and ready for them by their 4 p.m. wedding. (And it was. Was a beautiful wedding, too!)

As I stood around waiting for the wedding party to show up for rehearsal on Friday, one of the older women saw me staring idly at the rows of books. Her eyes lit on a book and seized it. Thrust it at me. Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells. A book I'd been meaning to read for a few years now. Sheila couldn't recommend it enough. And there was a fire in her eyes - she'd made an important connection here and she knew it. Somehow, she knew that I needed this book and was ready for it now. I doled out my quarter for the paperback. A little while later I saw the sequel: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. And I doled out another quarter. The movie was excellent and I'd meant to read both books years ago.

But I found them this past weekend and finally bought them ... because I was ready for them. Finally ready for them. The movie is largely about the second book (from which the movie took its name), but it's a movie in some ways primarily about the Ya-Yas themselves and their friendship and support for each other. It's also a book about the relationship between a mother and daughter - a relationship spanning love, abuse and downright craziness. But it's also a book about reconciliation and not trying so damn hard to get the other person to understand you and just let each other be. Sometimes trying to get the other person to understand you just messes everything up ...

... there's a deeper understanding that comes with letting go of it all and just being.

It doesn't mean that you don't wanna wring the other person's neck when they go back to an old pattern of dancing, that self-indulgent habitual ritual movement across time and events ...

... it doesn't mean you take the same crap you took as a kid ...

... but you don't try to control the patterns any more. Stand back and let the other person dance. When it gets too frenetic, point out that there are alternatives, but quietly, gently, reminding them that it's really their idea.

And be ready for them. Because they'll find it - whatever it is - when they're ready.

.

.

(lyrics are Peter Paul & Mary's "Would You Like to Learn to Dance")

Posted by Red Monkey at 12:03 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 15, 2008

Bloggers Unite - Human Rights

Bloggers Unite is an initiative designed to harness the power of the blogosphere to make the world a better place. By challenging bloggers to blog about a particular social cause on a single day, a single voice can be joined with thousands of others to help make a real positive difference; from raising awareness for cancer, to an effort to better education systems or support 3rd world countries. Read More

Bloggers UniteI wasn't even sure I was going to participate in Bloggers Unite - I write often enough about various human rights issues as the muse - or the news - strikes me. However, when I read SSB's post at My Thoughts, I knew I was going to have to chime in.

Do children have a voice? If you saw a child being abused would you do anything or nothing? If a child told you things at home would get worse would you listen?

I've spoken about childhood abuse issues before, most recently with the story of the Fritzls in Austria. I've written and illustrated one person's story at Mud-Walker in comic book form. I've talked about some of my own story here and continued it here.

Every year a local radio station does a "roof-sit" against child abuse. The first few years I heard the program, I applauded their ideals - but I could not listen to any of it. Not because the stories were too difficult for me to hear - but because hearing the stories filled me with, to be perfectly candid, rage and jealousy. Very misplaced rage, but rage nonetheless.

No one had saved me and it took me until I was 19 to save myself. I was so incredibly jealous of these kids who had been beaten, belittled, raped, neglected and treated like dirt - because someone had stepped in and tried to prevent those things from happening to them anymore.

Abuse by a master manipulator is something that is incredibly difficult for someone who has not experienced it to understand. It starts very slowly and insidiously with comments that all of us have made at some time or another. "Oh, you're not going to wear that are you?" It's a subtle picking at your core self, undermining your decision-making ability. And when you get to the point where you're doubting yourself, the isolation begins. At first it might be because the abuser doesn't like your friends. It might be because your friends think there's something wrong with your abuser - and you feel like you have to defend that person. After all, that person is your "other half" and only wants what's best for you, for both of you.

Think for a moment about those days when you want to please your other half. Not do something totally out of character for yourself - but if wearing the green shirt instead of the red one makes him or her happier, and it doesn't really matter to you, why not do it? It's just a nice gesture, no big deal.

And the problem is this is exactly how it can start. With those little things which aren't a big deal - taking advantage of your kind and nice nature. Soon, these requests will turn into bigger requests and a pouty face or sad face -- or outright anger and accusation that you don't want your other half to be happy.

It's so easy to see through the manipulation when it's written down like these pixels on the screen. It's so very easy to tell yourself you could never fall for that.

In my case, my father used these methods on my mother for years. She was sure she could not be anything other than a housewife. She is Catholic and divorce was not much of an option anyway. She struggled to keep her head above water ....

... and at the same time began the survivor's lies. It's not so bad. Other people have it worse. But he provides well for us. All women/men are like this.

And most damaging to everyone: "my spouse may hurt me, but would never hurt the children. The children are loved."

You see, when you feel trapped by your circumstances and you are in an intolerable situation - the brain "fixes" the situation for you. In other words, if you can't or won't act - your brain will do the acting for you. If you have been so manipulated as to believe that you cannot leave (or, in Elisabeth Fritzl's case as well as others, you literally cannot leave), your brain begins to lie to you, weaving a fantasy cloak of denial which will render virtually invisible all those tell-tale clues you should have noticed and acted upon.

In cases of father-daughter incest, often the mother has been sexually assaulted by the husband. Often she has been manipulated and her self-esteem slowly ground away to nothing. Her brain begins weaving the invisibility cloak and she may very honestly have no idea what he is doing to their children.

It is easy to explain the blood on the sheets as yet another in a long series of intense night-time nosebleeds. It is easy to explain the child's suddenly quieter nature as a product of growing up and learning how to behave properly. It is easy to simply be grateful to wake up in the middle of the night and find that he is not in bed with you. After all, if you go looking for him, he might just find you. Remember, your spouse loves the children - there's no way he'd harm them.

Of course, there are a myriad of other ways that childhood - and spousal - abuse play out, but so often I hear "How could the mother not know" and even sometimes, "How could the father have no idea?"

The truth is that it's easy to get away with it if you know how to manipulate your family. If you start slowly enough with the spouse and slowly enough with the child. Starting young helps, too. The younger they are, the easier they are to manipulate. After all, their parents are their whole world, the shapers of everything they know.

In situations like this, children have no voice. Depending on how they were manipulated, what threats and methodologies were used, they may literally not be able to speak or write down what has happened. Thinking about speaking may very well cause a kind of paralysis and selective mutism where they literally can't speak about the topic.

And if by some miracle, they do find a physical voice to speak - who will believe them? Nearly all abused children are told that "no one will believe you, even if you do tell." So if they do manage to utter the words, the slightest look or sound of doubt on another's face can cause them to quickly recant everything.

It's far easier to compartmentalize everything, storing all the details in different areas of the brain, splitting a single memory into a series of fragments, running them through a mental shredder and then storing the shredded pieces in different areas.

It's been popular since the early 90s at least to disbelieve tales of abuse and nearly every reason is a good reason to disbelieve those stories. We don't wish to confront evil like that. Children sometimes tell wild stories. Parents sometimes plant harmful stories in their kids' heads about the other parent in order to gain custody of their kids.

The problem is that if we do not openly and honestly investigate these stories, we're denying children their voice. We know the system sometimes takes kids wrongly. The system is far from perfect. But by not attempting to better that system, to pay the social workers enough to keep them from burning out - to pay the social services enough so they can hire more social workers - we are closing our ears to the children who need us most.

In my particular case, honestly, the manipulation began so early and I was such a good li'l actor, I'm not sure that there were enough clues for the adults around my family to hear what I could not say.

To this day, I've no idea how to give voice to kids who are like I was.

But I no longer feel the rage and jealousy - quite so much anyway - when I hear the roof-sit program against child abuse. I've spent the last few years working quite hard at looking at just how the abusive family dynamic plays out. I've absolved myself and my mother of a lot of responsibility for "causing" the abuse and for not stopping it.

I can only hope that by talking about the issues and complications, some person will read this and discover their own voice. That they will suddenly feel a portion of their brain stir and re-assemble some memories and help them to speak and to escape into the light.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:13 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 10, 2008

Balcezak

I am both grateful that I checked my blog stats and looked at the Search Terms stats - and profoundly sad at the same time.

While I have heard some people put forth the claim that the internet is not truly growing larger anymore, but instead, is fragmenting off into specialist areas, today I was forcibly reminded that the internet is still growing larger and that it has shrunk our world considerably.

One hundred years ago, if you moved some thousand or more miles from your home town, you would be hard pressed to hear any news of anyone you didn't personally correspond with.

Yesterday, as I logged into StatCounter for a fast look at the statistics for my websites, I discovered a chilling blast from the past. The search term was pretty simple: "christopher balcezak suicide." I was instantly catapulted back in time.

My family lived in Austin, Texas for all of about five years. I started kindergarten there. By the time I was 10, I had lived in Austin far longer than any other city we'd lived in. It was and has always been the town I think of as home.

My first Halloween in Austin, I had to wear the damn pumpkin costume. I hated it. It had to be stuffed with pillows and my mother teased me constantly about being fat whilst I worse it. It felt like torture to me. But it was wear the pumpkin or miss out on trick-or-treating and this would be my first "real" time going out with a big group of neighborhood kids. I mustered all my bravado - and bolstered that by running to my room at the last minute and grabbing my beloved "baby pillow" (travel-sized pillow) and shoving that in the very front of the costume - a kind of hidden security thing.
(Note: ignore the smile. I was NOT a happy camper that evening.)

Pumpkin Costume - oh how NOT clever this was

Mom walked me out to the group of kids with chaperones and dropped me off. Instantly, the troublemaker boy who lived around the corner from us started teasing me about being fat. I retorted with something about being well-protected and bet that I would not feel it if anyone tried to punch me in the stomach.

Yeah, I guess you could say I was baiting him.

Being a tough guy, he was sure he could make me feel it. I thought I was pretty slick. There was no way I was gonna feel his punch through two or three pillows right in front of my stomach - and I have a high pain tolerance anyway. Even if it hurt a little bit, I was not going to show it and his rep as a tuff guy would be shattered. With any luck, he'd stop picking on kids.

He hauled back, punched me in the gut - and one of the chaperones turned around just at that minute. Of course, to the adults, it looked like unprovoked aggression. They ignored the fact that I laughed at the punch (I really didn't feel it) and they sent him home.

That was my first memorable experience with Chris Balcezak.

While we lived in Austin, we went to St. Theresa's Catholic Church. This would have been the mid to late 70s - the church was opened in 1968, the same year that I and most of my friends were born.

I remember the long drives from our house through my beloved Texas hill country to get to church. Up and down the hills, trees and grass all shades of vibrant greens - bits of granite and limestone jutting out from the earth like the bones or teeth of some tremendous creature. The church was tucked in at the top of a hill, nestled into the trees. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been and I loved it. CCD (kind of like Sunday school for Catholic kids) was sometimes held in small classrooms, but was sometimes held outdoors - and I admit on those days I was far more entranced with the splendour of the world around me than I was the intricacies of catechism.

I remember the day at CCD when we were doing some stupid exercise outside and we were supposed to freeze when the teacher said some special freeze phrase or another. We did, but shortly thereafter Chris started wiggling and finally stood up. The teacher yelled at him - he was always in trouble for something - until he got her to realize that he'd laid down in a fire ant mound. If you know anything about fire ants, you know that to say this was "unpleasant" is a distinct understatement - those suckers HURT.

Being bratty children and tired of being bullied by Chris, one of us (probably me, to be honest) began giggling and pointing out that Chris had ants in his pants. This is the height of childhood chuckles, you know. Ants in the pants. I mean, it damages the rep of the neighborhood quasi-bully and it rhymes and it's something adults used to tell us when we couldn't be still. And Chris couldn't be still with all those fire ants biting him all over. Poor guy was in tears before he was rushed off to have the ants hosed off of him.

And, of course, we were all in trouble for not being empathetic to Chris' pain. Actually, I think our teacher was rather horrified by our callousness, but the truth of the matter was I don't think any of us truly understood the level of pain that Chris was in.

My last memory of this boy who lived around the corner from me for five years was when we finally, finally got a bus to come pick us up for school. Balcones Woods was some five or ten miles from Pillow Elementary school and our parents were tired of driving us - they wanted the school to provide a bus. Naturally, my bus stop was shared with Chris - and that was the impetus for my often leaving the house early and traveling up the neighborhood to other bus stops closer to the entrance of our subdivision. Our vice principal sometimes rode the buses in the afternoon - partly to mix more with the students, and partly to help keep the drivers keep better control over all of us young hooligans.

The first time he rode our bus, he sat next to Chris, which made all of us laugh (and sigh with relief). Chris was well-known for singing all of the mangled song lyrics like the schoolyard version of "On Top of Old Smokey." Sure enough, one of the kids from the back, called out for Chris to start us on that song. Red faced, staring at the floor and trying not to look at the vice principal, Chris stammered a refusal. To our surprise, however, the old fogey adult vice principal got the song started for us.

I remember looking back in shock - along with all of the rest of the bus - and seeing the stunned gratitude on Chris' face.

It hadn't occurred to me until then that Chris was something of a pariah at our school. To be sure, with his penchant for mercilessly teasing the rest of us and for beating the crap out of smaller kids, there was good reason most of us ignored him. But it didn't occur to me until that moment that Chris might be lonely as well.

For me, all through my life, Chris was a legend - the only neighborhood bully I really knew at all whilst growing up. He was not the quintessential evil bully. I don't recall him beating the utter shit out of any kid. I don't recall him doing any real damage - he was just a bit of a bully. He liked to get his way and he didn't really want to deal with anything else. He liked attention and he didn't mind too much how he got it. To this day, I can't think of my childhood in Austin without thinking of Chris.

So getting this search term hit on my blog was somewhat stunning. Surely this was not the same kid that I knew. I ran the search myself, only to find this snippet of text next to a Google search hit:

Dr. Christopher Balcezak, 34, died from an overdose of Amitriptyline.

That was from 2004. The right age. Still, surely this was another Christopher Balcezak. I clicked through.

Raised in Austin, Texas, Balcezak received his undergraduate degree at Notre Dame, then attended medical school at the University of Texas at Houston, where he graduated in 1995.

It all fits. Raised in Austin, went to a Catholic university ... this article was about the boy I once knew back in the 70s.

Chris BalcezakHe disappeared on the way to making his rounds and was found two days later, in his pickup, in a grove of trees. Later, the coroner released that Chris had purchased a large quantity of Amitriptyline under assumed names all across town. He apparently drove his truck through a corn field and into the grove of trees where he downed a large quantity of the drug with a bottle of Boulevard beer. A Physician's Desk Reference with a place marker at the entry for Amitriptyline was found in the truck - along with a framed photo of his three children, aged 6, 3 and 1.

It's beyond strange, really, to realize that someone you knew some 30 years ago is now dead. It's jarring to realize that I don't know his story ... that I will never know why he chose to end his life just a few years into his participation in a good medical practice - when it looked like his life was just coming together. It was strange to read these articles and tease out bits of his life after I moved away.

Article 1
Article 2
Article 3
Article 4

It's beyond bizarre to realize that Chris did his undergrad at Notre Dame - and I did my grad work there some four years or so after he'd left the place.

While I remember bits of trouble that Chris started or was involved in, while I called his pre-fourth grade self something of a bully - he was not, to my recollection, a bad kid. He was more the "classical" rough-n-tumble kid. He smarted off without thinking - he reacted to most of us by lashing out, but not utterly beating the crap out of anyone. A punch maybe. Two punches perhaps, but for the most part, he was all bluster and bellowing and not the truly violent type.

I've often wondered through the years where Chris wound up.

Thanks to someone hitting my blog via that search term, I now know a small slice of his story. Makes me wish I knew more - it makes me sad.

His oldest is now about the age I was when I moved away from Austin. And his youngest is about the age Chris and I were when we first met.

If I close my eyes or if I stare off into the distance and let my eyes unfocus, I can see past Keith's house and across the side street to the corner where we used to wait for the bus. If I concentrate, I can see Chris standing at the corner, waiting.

I have to wonder why he picked that grove of trees ... I wonder ... I wonder if it reminded him of Balcones Woods ... of a simpler time ... I wonder if he loved those woods as much as I did, if it reminded him of home.

Requiescat in pace.

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:12 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 29, 2008

The Dark Side of Belief

Those of you who have read this blog for very long will not be surprised that the news story which has captured my full attention over the last few days is taking place in Austria right now.

A father, Josef, tricked his 18 year old daughter back in 1984, to enter the cellar, where he drugged her, handcuffed her and then confined her in the cellar. He forced his daughter, Elisabeth, to write a letter to her parents stating that she had run away and that they should not look for her. Somewhere between 1988 and 1989, Elisabeth gives birth to a daughter. Then, a son. Nearly 10 years after Elisabeth's "disappearance," she purportedly leaves an infant on the doorstep of her parents' home, with a note stating that she cannot care for the child. This happens again the following year.

The tally so far, a daughter and a son who live in the cellar with Elisabeth. Then 2 infants left on the doorstep for her parents to raise. Four children fathered by her own father. Two she was allowed to keep; two taken from her. All this in the first 10 years of her incarceration.

In 1996, she gives birth to twins, one of whom dies shortly thereafter and her father places the infant in the building's incinerator. The next year, she gives birth to another child who also is left on the parents' doorstep. Then, in 2003, she gives birth to a final son. (source)

Elisabeth and the three children who stayed with her lived in a tiny cellar, which was constantly enlarged over the 24 years that Elisabeth was condemned to the prison. There was a little kitchen, a little bedroom, a little bathroom ... and apparently, a small storeroom as well.

What finally gave Josef away and revealed the four people living in the cellar dungeon? The oldest child became deadly ill and he took her to hospital, claiming she'd collapsed in front of his building. A call went out for the girl's mother ... and eventually it all came to light, quite literally.

When we are confronted with an example of pure malice and evil, our first reaction is generally one of denial and disbelief. Even as we marvel at the evidence in front of us and know intellectually that the buildings at Auschwitz were used in the ways that they were used ... a portion of our mind finds the concept of such cruelty too large to hold and the first words uttered are generally, "no, this can't be."

I spoke last month of Merrily Melson who was faced with a similar situation on a personal level. A partner whom she trusted suddenly began attacking her with an ax. Think about this for a moment. Think about your partner suddenly hefting an ax and come running toward you. What would your first thought be? Would it be "Hey, you're not Jack Nicholson, put that damn ax down before you hurt yourself?" Would the time it took to realize this was NOT a joke mean the first stroke was fatal?

How do you cope with finding out that you are NOT safe?

Merrily Melson was lucky. She reacted to the situation quickly enough to escape with her life and that, trust me, is no small feat. When you are confronted with such an extreme act, your ability to think is essentially cut off. Your brain cooks up a batch of chemicals which rather locks the reasoning areas down and strips you to reflexes. So it's no surprise that in the heat of being attacked by her partner wielding an ax in some bizarre scenario, that it didn't immediately occur to her to grab her son (who was not being threatened at the time). This is an immediate fight or flight response. Had Melson's partner begun threatening their boy in front of her, her instincts would have been to snag him and run.

But without seeing that immediate threat ... we are programmed more toward denial than thought at such a time.

It is the same with child abuse and particularly true of abuse in its most extreme forms. As humans, we accept, intellectually, that some sick people force themselves on children or beat their children or neglect them.

But unless confronted with some concrete evidence or very compelling circumstantial evidence (behavioural clues from the child, perhaps) - we do not believe that it will happen to anyone we know ... to the person next door. To us. It happens to other people. Not people we know and care about. Other people.

It's one of the fictions we live with daily in order to not worry 24/7. Just as we trust that the walls of our homes will not be breached, that our health will not suddenly disappear, that the people we love will care for us. We trust that helicopters will not fall from the sky, that big brother is listening to someone else's phone conversations, that our bosses do not read our blogs.

We trust, essentially, that those around us are worthy of our trust because the world is far too big and dangerous if we have to go it completely alone.

But this trust also means that many people try to say that these cases of extreme abuse don't really happen. Or that they don't happen in the U.S. - and it makes me want to scream. We have an example in Austria where it really shows just how easy this can be. Is it common for abuse to happen at this type of level? No, I don't believe it is common. But I am convinced that it happens more often than we want to think.

What confuses people, I think, is the plethora of wild abuse stories told in the '80s. We had the Atlanta abductions in the news, then there were reports of mass abuse happening in day care centres, and people claiming multi-offender, satanic abuse rings were popping up all over the nation.

If you read very carefully the 1992 FBI report by Kenneth V. Lanning (read the report here), Lanning is pretty thorough and logical with his analysis of the phenomenon. He begins with the history of how the U.S. has handled everything from "stranger danger" to the claims of the 80s. By the fifth part of the report, entitled "MULTlDlMENSlONAL CHILD SEX RINGS," he gets to the core of what I believe has confused the American public.

Lanning, in 1992, had found no evidence supporting a large, multi-offender, multi-victim, multi-murder cult. Look at all the words there. Large. Multi-offender. Multi-victim. Multi-murder.

He states quite clearly that smaller groups are possible and it's possible that smaller groups could even evade the law, particularly (this is a bit more my interpretation, but I think his text indicates he might agree with this) particularly when the victim is a young child, under the six at the onset of the abuse.

An important quote from the report:

Most people would agree that just because a victim tells you one detail that turns out to be true, this does not mean that every detail is true. But many people seem to believe that if you can disprove one part of a victim's story, then the entire story is false. As previously stated, one of my main concerns in these cases is that people are getting away with sexually abusing children or committing other crimes because we cannot prove that they are members of organized cults that murder and eat people.

I think most people in the '80s looked at the extreme allegations made, read the FBI report and came to a sort of conclusion of denial - "he said these things don't happen," when, in fact, the most important part of his report is that the stories of murder and cannibalism and satanic ritual may be exaggerated stories used to conceal very real abuse or crimes.

What he said was, these things don't happen with large groups of offenders and victims.

We have evidence that they do happen on a much smaller scale.

Who would have thought that a father of seven children would kidnap one of his children, imprison her, father seven children on her and then raise three of them himself and imprison three of them (and burning the body of the infant who died)? How did he choose which of the children to raise and which to consign to life in the dungeon? Why did he choose to bring any of them out? Was it simple overcrowding?

The case in Austria simply brings to light all of the questions I have about how humanity treats humanity ... and how tenaciously we cling to the idea that the world is a safe place even as we mouth the words about how unsafe it is.

The dark side of our belief and our hope that such things do not happen ... is that those who perpetrate such things get away with their crimes.

It was unfathomable that any government would kill some six MILLION members of a single group of people and for that to be just one segment of the deaths. Intellectually, we seem to recognize this possibility now - but even as we do, there's a rising number of vocal people who believe that the Holocaust did not happen. Whether that is simple political expediency or not, I think it also demonstrates just how deeply our denial goes.

We do not wish to believe such evil occurs.

The dark side of our belief that evil does not happen is to allow that evil to continue happening.

How do we keep these things from happening? The short answer is that we cannot. Josef and his family were insular. But even if they had been outgoing people, the cellar dungeon would likely not have been detected. Josef was quite good at concealing it and concealing sound. And, not every shy person or introvert is hiding some deep, evil secret.

With the facts we have about Josef's case, I'm not sure that he made many mistakes ... that he gave much reason for investigation. It all sounds so plausible once the daughter was first tricked into her incarceration.

But what about another case where people in the neighborhood knew that dead animals were nailed to the fence and they were pretty sure from which house this was happening? Why did they choose to look the other way? Isn't this a neon sign that bad things are happening?

Or were they just grateful that strays and vermin were gone from their neighborhood? Did the dark side of their belief in humanity convince them to be grateful that's all it was? that what they saw was the worst of it?

How do we balance the need to believe we are safe ... with the evidence that we are not?

Why do we choose to believe some stories ... and not others?

Why do we often choose to believe in grand, large conspiracies ... and ignore the smaller contrivances around us?

Why do we hear so often "I knew how I was treated ... but I never thought 'Pat' would hurt the children"?

Our belief can be a very power and positive agent in our lives ... but it also has a darker side which can cause us to completely deny actions we should take or allegations we should investigate.

We cannot live in a constant state of suspicion ... but there are times when we need to take out the cloth of our beliefs and shake it, examine it carefully and analytically before once again cloaking ourselves in it.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:55 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 24, 2008

Why Is It Always Texas??

Recently, I've run across a fair number of people online who seem quite adamant that the disaster at the Koresh compound in Waco was somehow an unfair persecution of a religious sect. Of course, this conspiracy nonsense has been much fueled by the current issues with the break-off sect of the Church of the Latter Day Saints who have built a community for themselves in Texas.

Why, oh why does this crap only seem to happen in my home state??

(Okay, okay, so in Texas and California. Still. I do NOT want Texas equated with California!!) So let's look at some of the pertinent facts and laws which apply to one case or the other.

First, let's start with how works in Texas.

Upon receiving a report of possible abuse or neglect, CPS first goes to the home or school and must speak with the child and do a visual exam. The child will be removed by the case worker investigating only if one of four scenarios exist or there is sufficient reason to believe one of these four is true:

  • immediate danger to physical health/safety
  • the child has been sexually abused
  • the custodial adult is using a controlled substance and that is causing an immediate danger
  • the custodial adult allowed a child to remain on the site whilst meth was being cooked

Two, weapon laws at the time of the Koresh standoff with the ATF. Automatic weapons were considered illegal at the time of the Koresh standoff, including the following weaponry found at the compound:

  • M-16 type rifles, modified for automatic use

  • AK-47 type rifles, modified for automatic use

  • Heckler & Koch SP-89, modified for automatic use

  • M-11/Nine, modified for automatic use

  • AR-15, modified for automatic use

  • silencers

  • live M-21 practice hand grenades

Three, current age of consent laws. The age of consent in Texas is 17. The legal age for marriage is 18. If under the age of 16, the law requires that the couple receives a court order before being allowed to marry. Marriage for ages 16 and 17 may occur with the written approval from a parent or legal guardian. (See the Texas Family Code 2.003 through 2.009)

Now, given these facts, I firmly maintain that there was sufficient cause to investigate the Branch Davidians. Accusations of child abuse had been made for years, but as is often the case, insufficient evidence was found. We know after the fact that while the Branch Davidians ran a legitimate arms business, they also had acquired illegal weaponry as well.

I do agree, as do most people, that the situation was botched and botched very, very badly. However, those people who think that the Davidians were a simple, innocent religious organization are simply wrong, if for no other reason than the illegal weaponry.

Those people who claim this was a violation of church and state are simply wrong. Churches still must comply with the laws of the land. They can work with their lawmakers to obtain exceptions and the like - as the Amish have done and done quite well - but there are some hard-and-fast rules. Physical safety of the members is one such rule, particularly in regards to children. Another is that gun laws must be obeyed.

(Side note - and it absolutely boggles my mind that any truly Christian organization would run an arms business and stockpile that inventory at the church. To me that goes against everything Christianity is - but, that's just my personal opinion.)

In the current example of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints with their ranch in Texas, a similar set of circumstances has arisen which is drawing criticism from people who believe the group is being persecuted.

In this particular case, there is a documented history of statutory rape and illegal marriage. Their leader is in prison as an accomplice to rape after he forced a girl under legal age to marry her cousin. One of the group's tenets is that a man must marry at least three women in order to get to heaven. We can make all the lame jokes about how being married to three women sounds more like hell, but that simply neglects the real issue: polygamy is illegal in the United States. Marriage to a relative is illegal in Texas. Marriage to someone under the age of 16 without court-granted permission is illegal in Texas. In addition, sex with someone under the age of 17 is illegal.

The state of Texas allowed the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to move into state because it was not illegal for them to do so. They changed a few laws (updating some antiquated marriage laws such as the marriage age). And they left the group alone to practice their religion.

Now, they have received a complaint that a 16 year old was sexually abused.

Whether that complaint is true or not, they must investigate it. Since they have not yet found the teen who made the complaint, they are left with an evaluation of the home life of the other children at the ranch as well as a deep concern for the originator of the call.

Let's look at this in a smaller scale. Two brothers are quite close. One forces his sister's child to marry another sister's brother-in-law. This brother is taken to jail for abetting the rape of a child. The other brother, who believes the same as the jailed one, continues on about his life. One of his five children call CPS and claims abuse. When CPS gets there, that child is missing.

This constitutes a reasonable concern for the safety of the other children and, in my opinion, necessitates their removal from the home until the situation can be better assessed.

Drastic? Yes. Traumatic? Most likely.

I see the same situation with the Yearning for Zion ranch.

This is not a "human rights violation," as I have seen some argue. Their right to practice their faith is no more being curtailed than any other faith. As a nation, we also don't allow practitioners of certain forms of Santeria to commit human sacrifice. Nor do we let the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints commit child abuse.

There are simply times when we have to step in and say, "We are not flexible about this law. You must obey it."

To call this persecution by the government is laughable.

Does it remind us of the failures at Waco? Of course it does. However, this has been handled in a different manner.

There is reasonable cause to think that laws have been broken. Investigation must occur.

Now, if we find out that the call from the 16 year old was in some way faked, we have a different kettle of fish. And the DNA testing? The assertation that this is to discover which child belongs to which adults seems reasonable to me given the Texas legal code. Legally they will need to place the children back with their biological parents when the investigation is over and since many of the adults aren't sure who is who's parent, they need the DNA tests. The Texas code is not set up for group families - they're set up for "traditional" families (meaning biological parents or legally adopted children). I suspect they also want some verification about incest and inbreeding, but that's just my suspicion and is probably only secondary to their legal directive to return the children to the biological parents after the investigation is concluded.

At the end of the day, there is no more persecution going on here than the Catholic Church was persecuted during all of the allegations of sexual abuse.

When the law is being broken ... it's not persecution, it's prosecution.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:44 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 18, 2008

Balance and Loss

It is one of those days when nothing can go right, which is certainly not what I expected after my centering and balancing hike yesterday. Generally speaking, one hike out at a place like Potato Creek can ground me for weeks.

Growing up in Texas, you'd think that I was an outdoor kid. The reality isn't quite like that. My mother was very scared of anything involving the outdoors - animals, insects, reptiles, dirt ... and we generally lived in the 'burbs, not out on a ranch. There was a tension between us most of my childhood, because I did want to be the rancher kid (or thought I did) and Mom thought staying in the house was the safest course of action.

When we lived in Austin, I was at my most free. Our house was on the edge of Balcones Woods and a large quarry. If we went out the front door? We were in the 'burbs. If we went out the backdoor? We were in the woods.

Despite my mother's best efforts to instill fear of all the dangerous outside things - I learned to love nature whilst we lived in Austin, more than any other place I ever lived. I welcomed thunderstorms (even when they made me nervous) - I loved to watch as the winds whipped the leaves around on the trees turning the deep greens into something nearly white. I loved the drive into town when we passed through areas where the road had been dynamited out of granite. I adored looking at the layers and layers in the rock, the plants trying to cling to the sides. My favourite places and times were when we went out to "Bear Creek" park. (I've since tried to find that park but apparently my recollection of the name is not correct.) The mix of woods and creek and old-fashioned "swimmin' hole" simply called to me and relaxed me in a way nothing else could.

I suppose, for me, it was the relief of not having to pay attention to tone of voice or body language - or whether dad's eyes were bloodshot yet or not. I remained aware of my surroundings - there were still rattlers and cottonmouths and even loose rocks whilst climbing - plenty of stuff to cause damage. But I seemed to have an instinctual grasp of my surroundings when I was outside and it relaxed me in a way that being around people never did. The wind through the leaves and branches and underbrush ... the crickets ... the frogs ... the cicada song ... the water burbling through the narrow, shallow creek, gradually deepening and quieting as it got deeper and wider ....

The tensions would just fade away and I could feel my core self, my true self, come to the forefront and simply be. It was easy to shed the outer self which had to deal with all of the demands made on a small child throughout the day - that kid who tried to do everything exactly perfect for every adult.

Today, every time I feel overly stressed ... when life is simply getting to me and I find it more and more difficult to find balance on my own ... I retreat, preferably to a place which includes both woods and water - and is out of sight of the "modern world." When I worked at Notre Dame, I would simply go to one of the small lakes on the north end of campus and walk the circular path, eventually coming to a resting spot just barely south of the "beach." No matter how crazy things got, this always centered me.

After I left ND, that spot was no longer very relaxing for me and I had to find a new spot and Potato Creek State Park, with the long, meandering trails along Lake Worster was just the thing.

So after a few weeks of not getting any job interviews for any of my queries, and seeing very few (very very very few) jobs for which I'm qualified appear on any of the dozen or so job boards I haunt ... I needed a time to center.

The walk did me a world of good. It was good exercise and I could feel all the tension and worry beginning to melt away as I listened to the sounds of world around me. I "hunted" the frogs, hoping for a good photo op. I sat down on a boulder and watched one of the feeder creeks meandering along under a bridge. I had to marvel at the little bird who seemed as curious about me as I was of him ... hopping along in the underbrush, one eye cocked at me, and keeping pace with me. There was the swan who just knew I was taking pictures and he kept trying to pose so I'd snap - and then he'd move to try to keep me from getting the "classic" swan photo.

The crunch of the gravel is one thing that has mostly annoyed me about the park, but there were patches of hay and grass as well.

The wind, the water, the birds, frogs ... it all helped relax and center me.

turtle

And then this morning, after my other half left for work, I did nothing but dream about realistic catastrophe after realistic catastrophe.

It began with dreaming that our chimney - which has some issues up at its top where some critters have ripped at the masonry - I dreamed that the chimney finally fell to the ground, wreaking all sorts of havoc with the house in general. Chances are, this is whilst I was dozing in the living room - near the fireplace - and about the time of the earthquake which shook much of the midwest this morning.

The rest of my ill-fated "nap" this morning (from about 5 a.m. until about 8 - my other half leaves for work at 4:30 a.m.), was horrific. I have several types of bad dreams - semi-realistic ones in which things seem real even upon awakening, but which follow "dream-logic." These dreams usually involve real people and situations, but not necessarily people who look like what they actually look like and the places are generally different in some way. Other nightmares involve things from my childhood.

But the nightmares this morning were the worst of the lot. They were the kind that could be real. The people look and act exactly as they do in real life. The places look exactly as they do in real life. And, the scenarios are all too real fears rather than exaggerations or metaphors.

I won't bore you with a list of what those dreams were, only that they destroyed all of the balance I had so carefully nurtured yesterday. And I'm left with just one thought: I need a job. Badly. I'm a hard worker; I do what is asked of me and I ask for more. I'm detail-oriented and focused. I have no ego when it comes to work - I'm not the boss or creative director ... I'm a very happy worker, producing my product whether it's graphics (my favourite) or copy ... or reports or whatever is required of me.

I just beg ... do not make me go back to retail work. Not only is the pay abysmal, it is without a doubt not within my realm of talents - so much so to the point where working retail is honestly more depressing than not working at all. At least now I can freelance.

Something has to give soon.

It just has to.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:28 PM | Struggles | Vacations and Photos | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 13, 2008

Gender: M / F / ? (part 2)

Continuing from Thursday's discussion about the differences between biological sex and cultural gender-roles:
So it does seem that throughout our human history, there have been quite a fair number of individuals who did not fit into the cultural gender role specified by their biological sex. I am not discussing sexual orientation, which to me, is a separate (although related) issue.

What strikes me about all of this is an issue which has always irritated me and is demonstrated most aptly by a modern example: the About Me box prevalent on every website with any real level of personalization. You can see the problem if you surf through Blogger blogs, MySpace, Friendster or the like. Some people have short, pithy About Me boxes - either their world is easily classified and categorized, or they've given up in frustration. Other people have About Me boxes which trail from the top of the page, down below the fold and then some, a long, skinny tail attempting to balance everything that person is.

The reality of humanity is that we are rarely easily categorized. People are so very much more than their religion, their race, their nationality, their ethnicity, their profession, their marital status ... and more than their sex or their gender.

So, what is it to be male or female in terms of expected gender roles? Well, obviously this changes from culture to culture.

My first-year college students, some 5-8 years ago, had to read a seminal article discussing how gender expectations led to male and female students learning and behaving differently in the classroom. When it came time to discuss the essay in class, the students immediately let me know exactly what they thought about the article: it was hopelessly out of date.

It was one of those moments in teaching that you can't plan, but when they happen, you wish you'd had a video camera to record the whole thing.

The students began by all agreeing that such preferential treatment of boys over girls simply didn't happen any more. It very quickly morphed into "boys and girls are better in different areas because boys and girls are interested in different things."

Girls don't like math.
Boys don't like reading.

As the students made these generalizations, I could see some of them starting to squirm in their seats. However, as first-year students, not all of them were willing to "take on" the entire class and it seemed like everyone else was agreeing.

And then one of the male students said, "Well, you can tell boys and girls are different just by what they play with when they're little. I mean, girls don't like to play with cars or get dirty or climb trees."

Before he could go on, there were a couple of mini-explosions across the room.

We spent the rest of the class having a great discussion on gender-roles and how those often differ from the reality of individual personalities. With a class that included several female engineering students, several international students and a couple of males in "non-traditional" fields, there was a lot of sharing of stories. My students left the class that day, still discussing the issues - a happy and semi-rare day for a required first-year course.

I think many people in the western world have come to the conclusion that it is not necessarily a trait of males to want to have a career. It's not necessarily a trait of women to want to stay home with the kids.

So, while some traits might be more prevalent in men or in women, they all seem to have not just exceptions (which implies they are not common) but that these traits might be tendencies, whether hard-wired or learned.

So what does hard-wire the male and female brain to be different?

Some research indicates that men use more grey matter, leading to a tendency toward more information processing; women tend to use more white matter, leading to more connections between various processing centers.

So, those people who say men and women think differently are right - in general. The problem is that there are always biological exceptions which muddy the waters.

For myself, I cringe when any survey asks me: M or F. I am not that easily categorized. They are not usually asking for my biological sex as that rarely matters in a survey. They are often asking for gender and I don't think that the majority of people in the western world truly fit into the expected gender norms. I know too many men who are "too sensitive" and too many women who enjoy the outdoors "too much." And if a researcher is simply quantifying us by M & F we're going to get pink Hello Kitty compound bows sized for a woman - which might make some of my friends happy (you know who you are!!), but which would just piss me off to no end.

Ultimately, what makes us what we think of as male or female is more complicated than our biological bits and there's a lot more overlap in both directions than M or F would indicate on a survey. As a species, we are programmed to look for patterns and to put everything into hierarchies. The problem is, most of our methods of classification are too simplistic to truly encapsulize who we are. There is no better example of this phenomenon than Thomas Beatie - someone born female, but felt like a man. So, he had his breasts removed, began the testosterone therapy ... but stopped short of a "full" sex change, citing that one day he might want to bear a child.

Is Thomas a man or a woman? Biologically, the answer is fairly simple as we sex people by their genitalia. However, if we were able to look at all of Thomas's systems, would we find all the hallmarks of female, or would we find female knees and reproductive organs, but a male brain?

Is the woman who is outside more than inside, who hunts deer and delights in dune buggies more male or more female?

And ultimately, does it really even matter? Aren't we simply ourselves?

Why should the exterior trappings of male and female dress or appearance matter to anyone short of potential mates? Why do we care?

In online communities, I try to not say if I'm male or female because I feel the question is far more complicated than the simple biological answer. I catch flak for it and I don't particularly care. If there's a shoutbox or live chat feature to the community, I generally find myself the center of a controversy - is "ender" male or female. People get angry when I won't answer the question. Eventually, I pose one question to them: "If I'm not looking to date you, why do you care? I am still the same person I was before the debate started here. Why does it really matter?"

So far, no one has been able to answer that question ... and they have all (so far) decided that it doesn't matter after all. They're still curious, of course, but we are an intensely curious species - and that's a good thing.

[Some further reading:
from the BBC
from

Posted by Red Monkey at 12:10 PM | Blog | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 9, 2008

Still Breathing

I was, apparently, a good baby. (I know, what happened, right?) As the first-born, of course, my parents had no real idea what they were getting themselves into, and like all new parents, they thought I probably cried too much. I was put on the very healthy soy formula, since that was the thing at the time. Apparently I was congested so much of the time as an infant, my mother was just certain that I would be claimed by SIDS. Part of that fear was "just" the paranoia of a new mom, part of it was my congestion. But it wasn't long before I settled into a fairly quiet routine. I'd play in my crib, gurgling and goofy in the morning until Mom was ready to get up - a note in my baby book says that it was a great way for Mom to wake up in the morning, greeted by baby's smile.

Despite my determination to play no matter how I felt, by the time I was three, it was obvious that something wasn't right. After a myriad of tests you don't want to give to a three year old in 1971, I was diagnosed with both allergies and asthma.

A partial list of allergies:
Foods: soy, tomatoes, green beans, peanuts, peas, broccoli, most every green vegetable and I believe every legume -- luckily I do not get the anaphylactic shock reaction, so I can tolerate some amount of these things
Outside: grass of multiple varieties, ragweed, pine trees, cedar trees, cottonwood trees, most flowers - pretty much everything that grows outside, I think
Animals: cats and dogs and bird feathers
Inside/Misc.: mold, mildew, dust mites, cockroaches, ampicillin

The asthma could be triggered by humidity, cold, smoke, and "excessive" activity. Yeah. What's excessive activity to a three year old?

The doctor told my mom the bad news: she needed to keep not just a clean house, but an ultra-clean house. My parents needed to stop smoking. And they'd have to watch me carefully outside. And, of course, I'd have to start getting allergy shots.

I started allergy shots.
Mom covered my box springs in a plastic allergy bag. And my mattress. I think we tried the pillows, but I couldn't sleep for the noise it made.
Mom gathered every single stuffed animal and doll that I owned, put them in bags and into the car. I thought Mom and I and my toys were going for a car ride - we did - straight to the Salvation Army. Stuffed animals and dolls were dust catchers. (Try explaining this to a heart-broken, screaming three year old. Doesn't work very well. Obviously, as I'm still whining about it.)
Mom began a cleaning regime which developed into a full-fledged OCD drama. Vacuum on Mondays and Fridays. All clothes, including the bedding, washed on Thursdays. I don't recall a specific day for the dusting, but it was also done often.
Mom was nervous every time I went outside, exhorting me to not run (didn't work).

Out of those two lists, what didn't get done?

I know it was the early 70s. Everyone smoked. Including my parents.

I can recall going clothes shopping (against my will) with Mom and everyone smoking in the mall. The clothing stores had ashtrays in the dressing rooms and I recall one time in particular when I was a bit older. Left alone in the dressing room while Mom went to hunt down another size (I was "saving" the dressing room so someone else couldn't take it), Mom left her lit cigarette in the little stall with me. Brave, I picked it up, surprised a bit at how warm it was, and I carefully stubbed it out, trying not to damage it, just to make it quit stinking up the place so bad. She came back, went for a drag, and was stunned to see that it had "gone out." She re-lit it, took a few puffs, tried on some stuff and again left me there while she went back out to find something else. This time I broke the cigarette and when Mom came back, I was really surprised, but she wasn't really mad. Just said she didn't realize it bothered me so much. That was the only time I ever held a lit cigarette.

So much of my childhood was structured around avoiding triggering my asthma and allergies - but the smoking was something that drove me crazy. I could feel the "dirt" in my lungs from it. The smell got up into my sinuses and drove me crazy. But it really started to get to me when other people assumed that I smoked simply because everything I owned smelled of it, and I smelled of it. The breaking point was the evening I went to babysit for a new client and the mother literally turned up her nose at me and said, "You smoke." I replied that I did not smoke and never had. She sighed dramatically and pointed to a remote location of the backyard. "Smoke over there, where the children can't see you. They are not allowed to see people smoking."

It didn't matter how I protested, I was a teenager, I smelled of smoke, and she was a judgmental woman. Of course, by then, the mid 80s, smoking was becoming a habit to restrict and to drop. I began a "quit smoking" campaign with my mother, but it wasn't until she decided to rejoin the workforce and was afraid that being a smoker was one strike against her too many, that she decided to quit smoking. And she did it, first time, with the help of the nicotine gum.

I know that in the early 70s, it was not easy to quit smoking. Hell, I realize that for most people, it's not easy to quit now, even with Zyban, the patch, the gum and all the rest of the quit smoking aids.

But it was truly one of the great frustrations of my childhood to know that I was expected to not run track, not join a swim team, have all of my stuffed animals given away in front of me, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera - and still have my parents smoke in the house, the car - constantly.

It was a constant mixed message. We care so much about you we wrapped your bed in plastic and we restrict what you can do - just so you stay healthy. On the other hand, my food allergies were completely ignored and the most frequent household chores I had (besides doing dishes) was to dust and vacuum. Even though particularly dusting the house was prone to give me a terrible sneezing fit, clog my sinuses and irritate my eyes.

You have asthma, you can't run track. Go dust the house.
You have asthma, you don't need to be building a clubhouse. Go weed the front yard.
We want you to be healthy, as they blew smoke in my face.

Don't mistake me. I'm actually not trying to vilify them for this. I'm trying to understand it.

Mom once told me that when the doctor told her that she and my father needed to quit smoking, she knew that Dad never would. She made the decision at that time to do everything else possible. I told her, but the smoke wouldn't have been as bad if it had just been Dad. He was only home evenings and was outside most of the weekend during the warm months. Her unspoken answer was plain on her face: if he wouldn't give it up, it was unfair to ask her to give it up.

And to a certain extent, I get that. I can imagine how difficult the craving would be with no patch or gum, the moment Dad walked in the door with a lit cigarette. I have no doubt it would be maddening, and I am pretty certain that Mom simply didn't have the willpower at that time in her life to quit smoking under those conditions. I do get that.

But it doesn't really touch the double standard of how my allergies were handled.

Anything that impacted my parents in a serious way was ignored. Mom literally forgot that I had food allergies until I was digging through some paperwork one day and found the results of one of my old allergy tests. I was stunned at how many of the foods I really, really seriously hated were on that list. I tried to point this out to my mom, to point out how unfair it was that we bent over backwards to avoid using cow's milk because my sister was lactose intolerant - and yet I was told to eat food I was allergic to almost every day.

It was a few weeks after finding that paperwork, that I began to have a recurring dream, one that I would have until a few months after I moved out of my parents' house. In the dream, I was at my pediatrician's office (instead of my "grown-up" doctor) and he was listening to my lungs and tsk-ing. I just knew I was in trouble. I'd done something wrong, but I couldn't figure out what.

"She's got to stop breathing," the doctor told my mother. "It's going to kill her." Mom stood across the examining room and looked disapprovingly at me - as if I should have known better. As if she'd been telling me for years that breathing was bad for me and now I was making her waste precious time and money by having to go to the doctor - only to have him tell me to quit doing this.

In the dream, I am too shocked to say a word. How can breathing be killing me? Not breathing is what kills; not continuing to breathe! But they are both looking at me so seriously, so gravely.

The dream cuts to a return visit to the doctor. This time I'm attempting to hold my breath as the doctor examines me. To breathe on the sly, taking stolen tokes of oxygen. It's to no avail. He sighs, shakes his head and again ignores me to look at my mother. "She's been breathing again."

It's a pretty simple dream, really. Obviously by the time I was a teenager, I believed I was being held to impossible standards that other people were not held to. Some twenty years later, I can see that feeling was pretty accurate. I was expected to do everything exactly right, no matter how much that inconvenienced me, whereas my parents were very much allowed to take any shortcut they chose.

Of course, a portion of that is simply the difference between being an adult and being a teenager, but I can also see where my parents were simply not ready to take responsibility for their actions - to think through how what they did affected their children.

I see on a variety of blogs over at Cre8Buzz how different parents today are thinking through what they do and how it affects their kids. Of course, these parents are my age or younger. They've learned from their own mistakes and the mistakes their parents made. I've seen some amazing parents say, "Eh, ya know what? I'm spending too much time online. I'm going to take charge of my life and ration the time I allow myself to be online. I need to go play with my kids more." I've seen them discuss quitting bad habits, talking to their kids about serious issues, pulling their kids out of crappy schools and agonizing over whether to home school or take on an additional job to pay for private school.

I find that introspection and self-examination and honesty a breath of much-needed fresh air.

Ultimately, what many of these bloggers don't realize is that not only are they in conversation with other parents when they share a story about parenting or their kid. (Because by no means are all of these people "mommy bloggers" or "daddy bloggers" - many of them are "regular bloggers" who happen to include their family life in addition to everything else they write about.) They are also, in an odd way, helping those of us who did not have great parents or a great childhood to gain some perspective and attain some healing. Reading one parent say how they tackled a problem with their kid can lead to me thinking through how my parents handled a similar situation - and in spending time analyzing that it becomes easier to see what is a normal bump in the parenting road, and what was perhaps a freaking boulder from the sky.

I suppose, then, that this post is really a thank you to all the folks who brave the stigma of being branded a parent-blogger. You're not only helping out other parents with tips and techniques, you're not just making us laugh with you - you're also helping us to re-evaluate our own childhood and parents.

And that's a good thing.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:46 PM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 5, 2008

Focus On Your Own Damn Family

This is essentially a repost from January of '07, but one that I feel bears repeating, particularly in light of the people wailing and gnashing their teeth about Thomas Beatie's decision to bear a child.

I will admit that I am somewhat confused by a woman who undergoes much of the sex-reassignment procedures and becomes legally declared a man ... but does not wish to have the genitalia changed as well because "he had always wanted a child." That's not my understanding of transgender and sexual re-assignment, but I will admit that it's only my understanding of it. I'm not gonna dictate what Thomas can and can't do. It's up to him.

What I'm pissed off about, is how any time there is a non-traditional family brought into the media, people instantly begin wailing about "good old family values" and "these people are going to ruin their children's lives."

Give.
Me.
A.
Break.

I am sick to death of this utter CRAP about "traditional family values."

My father was raised by a mother and father. His dad worked hard. His mom stayed home with the kids.

My mother was raised by a mother and father. Her dad worked hard. Her mom stayed home with the kids. They went to church every week.

My parents were raised by people with "traditional family values." My parents had "traditional family values."

That did NOT make my parents good parents.

I did not turn out well because of my parents' traditional family values.

I turned out the way I did partly because I have always had an exceedingly strong sense of self. Because I stumbled upon books which nurtured me and encouraged me in believing that there was normalcy in the world. Because I had teachers who nurtured me even though they never did seem to realize just how much I needed that nor what was wrong.

What creates a well-balanced child ... and a well-balanced adult ... is not just a mother and a father. It is not what we erroneously call "traditional family values."

What creates a well-balanced child is love and attention and boundaries and knowing that all of this comes from someone who genuinely cares for you.

Is the ideal situation for a child a male and a female figure in their lives? Honestly, I don't know and I'm not sure that this is the best question to ask. The problem is that we simply do not live in an ideal world. We live in reality. And it's freaking messy and muddy and unclear down here in reality.

As for the idea that this Mom and Dad family is the Christian way to do things ... since in the U.S. and in the U.K. that seems to be the loudest voices of complaint ... let me set a few things straight.
First, it was not just Mom and Dad until perhaps the last 100 years (or less). Instead, it was most often either an extended family or something closer to a village or tribe. With multiple adults responsible for helping to love and discipline the children - not just one mother and father.
Second, Jesus was not born in the ideal situation. He was born to a mother and father, but he was not born in the rarified air of a good home. He was born, through no real fault of his parents, in the most real and common of places. In the mess and muck of a stable. Not the sanitized manger scene that we usually see.

Why bring up the manger? Because everything about Jesus in the Bible comes down to Jesus being very grounded in reality rather than intense numbers of rules.

To my mind, "family values" should simply mean that a child receives both love and discipline and knows that the person or people taking care of him care for him.

Ideally, children should probably know that they can trust all the adults around them ... that all the adults around them can administer trustworthy and valid and fair discipline.

But we don't live in that ideal world. And many of us prefer to discipline and raise our children according to our own ideas and our own beliefs.

So this old concept of "traditional family values" that is so carped on, is really something of a fallacy.

And, when we look at the reality that many children live in today: abandoned to orphanages, abused and taken from their family of birth, bounced from one foster home to another for a myriad of reasons. Children with "special needs" tend to be in a particularly grim situation. Their special needs mean they need more attention and understanding ... and often more discipline handled in a more thoughtfully fair way.

Is this the "family values" that people are carping about? Leaving these kids in the system?

If we can get children to an adult or adults who can handle the child ... who can give the child the love and discipline and let the child know how much they care about the kid ... isn't this preferable to keeping the kid in the system?

To my mind, this means no discrimination over the person's religion, their marital status, or ... if they're gay or not.

Those so-called "traditional family values" that people babble about ... what are they really?

Because to all appearances, my parents had those values. And I would not wish my childhood on anyone, much less a child. I said earlier that I would have been ecstatic to have lived in the worst inner city 'hood with a parent or parents who really loved me and cared for me. And I stand by that. I would rather have been raised by two fathers who loved me and took care of me. I would rather have lived with two moms who disciplined me and encouraged me in a rational manner.

I would have rather put up with the teasing and bullying at school for that ... than the utter isolation I went through.

And I think most children out there in orphanages, foster homes, and group homes would feel the same way.

Let's quit whining about what the absolute most ideal situation is ... let's live in the reality that these kids are living in. Get the kids adopted out to people who will care for them and not worry about if the family values of every family exactly and totally matches our own.

To borrow the words of those who seem to oppose gays adopting children the most, "please, let's think of the children."

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:19 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 28, 2008

Pop Pop Pop

It's is 2:22 a.m. early Friday morning. It's been a long week for me despite the fact that for some people, it was a short week following a 3 or 4 day weekend.

I couldn't go to sleep at first because I was kinda hyped up from choir practice. Then, there was the fire truck that crawled by with the sirens going full blast around 11. I finally started to get sleepy around 1.

When I heard gun shots.

I live in a nice neighborhood. But in South Bend, the neighborhoods go "bad" very quickly. A half dozen blocks in one direction and you're in gang territory, four blocks the other direction and you're in the area where Frank Lloyd Wright built some houses. (By which you can assume that the first set of houses are small and run-down and the second set of houses are huge, ritzy - places in which I can only dream of living.)

I used to live in a really bad part of town. It was good for a while, but by the time the crack dudes moved in across the street and the whorehouse opened shop behind us (less than 100 feet from an elementary school), things were not good. I heard sporadic gunfire when I lived there - though most of it was several blocks to the west of us. Probably at least 12 blocks, a mile. But on cold, winter nights, especially, the sound travels much further than you think it should.

I am one of those dumbasses who will go to the window when I hear things like this. I once reported a wreck when I lived in the 'hood - only to discover, as I watched with my face against the glass high up on my front door - that it was actually a drug deal gone wrong. I was still on the phone with the dispatcher when one man tried to run over the other one with his car. Only the timely appearance of a "random" dude on a bicycle kept me from witnessing a vehicular murder. When a police officer was shot and killed within a mile of my home and the entire police department put my neighborhood under a net, I had to be told to get back in the house.

Yeah. I'm one of those idiots.

Well, to be honest, I didn't leave the house. I opened my window and talked to the cop on the corner. But he was a bit annoyed with me even though we all knew we were on the edges of the net and not where the shooter was supposed to be.

So, around one this morning, I hear the pop pop pop of gunfire. I would have sworn it was twelve or more.

I go to the window and look out. Nothing unusual. I watch for a minute or more, trying to be unobtrusive in my surveillance. I go sit down at my computer. Surely I am exaggerating. I did not hear gunfire. This is a nice neighborhood. I am prone to getting alarmed.

Maybe someone's old shed broke up under the icy snow we received tonight. The pops keep coming. I wonder if a string of electric transformers are blowing up. But I've heard that sound many times in many neighborhoods - that sound is deeper, closer to the sound of a shotgun.

I can't help it. I know I heard gunfire. I certainly can't go to sleep now. Should I call the police? I've no idea where the sound came from other than north of my house and probably to the west. Blocks? a mile? I don't know. Sound travels funny at night in the cold.

By the time I've settled down enough to be tired and ready for bed again, it's about 2:30 a.m. My other half has to get up for work in an hour. If I lay down now, I'll probably turn off the alarms in my sleep and she'll miss work. Considering how anal her workplace is about even a tardy, this can't happen. So, I stay up, troll through the local paper online looking to see if it was my imagination or not.

It was NOT my imagination. There were at least four shootings in town overnight. The second was the one I heard.

a family told police they were asleep inside the home when they heard a car drive down the alley and six shots fired just after 1 a.m. Police sent to the scene found shell casings and bullet fragments in the home.

The next shooting happened about 20 minutes and perhaps 10-12 blocks away from the first. The final one happened just five minutes and perhaps a half dozen blocks from the previous one. These last three shootings were all drive-bys and supposedly only the first two are related.

It's a quiet neighborhood and I know the area to the north and west of us - where the shootings all occurred, get more and more rough. But three shootings within about a mile or two of the house is just ...

Especially after writing about Merrily Melson the other day.

It's nearly 6 a.m. now. Wonder if I'll get any sleep at all.

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:22 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 26, 2008

No Guarantees

I enjoy playing an online semi-role-playing game called: Kingdom of Loathing. The whole game is tongue-in-cheek, full of delightful puns, absolute silliness, purposeful misspellings or "typos" - and the characters are all extraordinarily well-rendered, beautifully done stick figures. The site is white with black text. The concepts are simple and while it's not like a MUD with real-time interaction with the other players (except, perhaps in chat, but I haven't ventured in there yet), it's a really fun little game. You get 40 "turns" or adventures for the day, but you can --

Wha?

Oh yeah. I wasn't going to talk about the game. Suffice it to say that I spend an hour or so with the game every day. I also spend time at the fan site The Kol Wiki as well for tips and hints when I get stuck. (Or to find out for sure what some game piece actually is.) I don't always hit the main page, but I did today.

And I was chilled.

One of the people who play the game and apparently someone well known in the KOL community was attacked by her partner March 15th. Apparently, the man snapped and went after this woman with an ax which was inside their home. She escaped, with ax wounds to the head and upper body, went to a neighbor's and called police. When the police arrived, they realized that the man had taken their nearly 3 year old son with him.

The boy was eventually found dead. Apparently killed with a screwdriver.

Article one
Article two

The folks at KOL are doing an in-game fund-raiser for the baby's memorial. I believe there is also a bank taking donations. [El Dorado Savings Bank - 800-874-9779]

I cannot fathom what possesses someone to pick up an ax and attack another person. I cannot imagine that moment of rage and loss of reason which makes running after your partner with an ax seem a viable choice.

I cannot fathom the extended dose of adrenaline and rage and loss of reason which can make a person grab his son and run off, only to take a screwdriver and end the life he helped begin.

I cannot imagine living with the knowledge that I had done such things.

I cannot pretend to know what Melson felt or thought after her partner of six years did this. Or how she feels knowing that her wounds were treated that day and she was released ... but her son's wounds were beyond repair. There is a biological directive for a mother to protect her children - and a similar one which tries to tell you that the father might be mad at you, but he'd never hurt their child. How do you protect yourself or your child, much less both, from someone with an ax?

How do you live with the questions, the hindsight, the second guessing yourself?

My heart goes out to Merrily Melson. There are no magical words to make this better.

I am left speechless by the events and wishing I could offer some kind of comfort.

We live our lives full of hope. Even when things are pretty dark and we think we are hopeless, we are still, biologically, pretty trusting. We trust that our apartment will not crumble and fall. We trust that the water in our pipes is potable. We trust that we can walk from the house to the car without a piece of satellite falling from the sky. We trust that a traffic helicopter will not lose control and come down on the highway. We trust that the cars driving by on the wet streets will not lose control, slam into a curb and punch their way into our home.

We trust that we are relatively safe.

It is a semi-true piece of semi-fiction we tell ourselves because the human body simply can not live in a constant state of fear. It can live in long periods ... but not constant. It is in hearing about tragedies like this one that the fiction is stripped from us for a moment and we are chilled to recall that there are no guarantees.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:35 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

February 15, 2008

No Recession Here

This seems to sum up the job market in South Bend, Indiana, right now:

General - Seeking a position as a Personal Assistant. If you need more hours in a day, I can help. I am 31 and Ivy- League educated.

Yeah, it's that depressed here.

Jobs which ARE here: medical professionals ... holy crap, but all of the want ad boards are full of requests for nurses and doctors and specialists. Apparently we're a bunch of sick fooks around here. Also needed: CNC operators and truck drivers and sales people.

Don't get me wrong, those are all needed fields. I'm just not qualified in any of those. Nor do I have any real interest in them. Except maybe CNC operator... that one actually sounds really interesting. But I don't have the slightest clue how to use that machinery, so ....

Here's a snapshot of just South Bend. On February 15, 2008, that includes "274 South Bend jobs in 211 job titles." Of those 211 job titles, 127 are specifically for medical professionals. Not the shining outlook of jobs it looked like at first glance. Another 11 are for commercial drivers. So, now we're down to 75 job titles. Several of the remaining positions result in a "We're sorry. The position you're looking for is no longer being advertised" error. Most of the remaining positions are in sales or engineering or "WE NEED A GOOGLE CLICKER" type jobs.

Graphic design jobs = 0
jobs for English majors who suck at selling things = 0
jobs for ex-teachers = 0

I'm afraid I'm going to have to go to factory or warehouse work ... and honestly, they're not going to hire me because I'm "over-qualified." They're going to take one look at my education and where I used to work ... and assume I'm not a good fit, and pass me over. And they're right, really. I don't plan on staying in factory or warehouse work because my joints will fail and cause body parts to drop right off.

I should hustle up more freelance jobs, but that won't take care of a steady paycheck nor health insurance. I let my COBRA lapse this month after re-filling all of my prescriptions. I just can't afford $330 a month for the insurance when my meds are about $200 every other month. Now that I've let it lapse, I'm sure I'll get the flu or something. The economic "stimulus" rebate that will be sent out in May isn't gonna do crap for me and for a lot of people like me. It'll go toward paying off the debt load we carry rather than wontonly and recklessly spending spending spending to help the economy.

You want to help the economy? Spend within your means. Rich people oughta be spending more money so us poor schlobs can get paid and reduce our debts. Hire the people you need to hire for your company and quit outsourcing shit. Quit loaning people so much for houses that they can't really afford. Quit sending out pre-approved credit card apps like they are Halloween candy.

It's not hard stuff, people.

I still remember the first time I used my shiny new credit card.

I had just moved out of the house. My parents had divorced immediately thereafter. Mom and Dad had a "gentleman's agreement" (i.e., nothing in writing) that Dad would pay for my car when it broke down. When. Not if. Since he was making just about $100k in 1987, this seemed reasonable to me.

I drove to work Monday morning and discovered a bad thing about my car. The brake pedal went all the way to the floor. I slid the car into neutral and managed to get to work and then home safely, but I was constantly trying to figure out what curbs I should aim for if I needed to stop suddenly. I was terrified to even get into a minor fender bender in this car because ... well, let me put it this way. My mechanic was terrified of the car. The frame had been broken ... right at the driver's door ... and welded back together. Wonderful things can be done with welding, but when your mechanic comes out of the pit looking white as a ghost and telling you the car is dangerous, you tend to get scared about that particular weld. In addition to the glued together frame, the previous owner had installed a "moon roof." Himself.

This moon roof was probably 1/4" to 1/2" thick glass which spanned 80% of the roof of the vehicle. And I have NEVER seen so much caulk used on anything in my life. It was an ugly caulk job, but I tell you, the roof never did leak.

The thought of not having brakes in that car was enough to make most people wet themselves.

So, I called Dad the minute I got home from work. This would be the first time after the divorce that I called for help with the car. His reply? "Oh. Well, we'll deal with it on Saturday." Umm, work? school? These things were not important. There was no public transportation in our town at that time and it was far too far to walk to either place.

"Umm, Dad? I am putting the car into neutral to stop at all. There is nothing left of the brakes; they're gone."

"Saturday."

After I got off the phone and screamed for a while, I remembered the plain white envelope which had come earlier that day. My first credit card. I drove the car carefully to the mechanic's and got the brake job done ... paid for by Visa. Took me two or three months to pay that off, I think. Maybe four. That was back in the days of $3.85 minimum wage ... my rent with my first roommate was $201 (and then we split that in two) ... but having to pay off on the credit card hurt for months.

It's been years since I've been in that kind of financial position. And yet, when I look at the job market right now, that's what's coming for me, I think. A return to 1989 ... living check to check ....

But then I was in school and had high hopes for a career in teaching at the university level. I've since come to realize that's probably not in the cards for me as the entire "publish or perish" thing drives me mad. I'd rather focus on teaching my students than researching and writing about minutiae. (Okay, not all of it is minutiae, particularly not in my field ... but still ... I tend to be more practical than academic.)

There's a little less hope and a lot more cynicism now.

And, it would seem, a lot fewer jobs.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:22 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

February 7, 2008

The Tower of Conceptual Babel

Back in 1993, I was finishing up my bachelor's degree in English in a state school. Not the fancy-pants University of Texas at Austin - known as UT. But the school we perceived of as the poor cousin, University of Texas at Arlington - known as UTA. It wasn't that the school wasn't as good, but we simply didn't get the press that UT did. We didn't have a football team. We were a commuter school. We weren't in a cool town like Austin, but out in the 'burbs between Dallas and Fort Worth. Our concept of ourselves was based on what others thought of UT ... we were obviously a poor outlying satellite.

Despite our concept of ourselves, we had some cool stuff going for us. One of the other tutors at our writing center told me about this nifty thing she'd discovered. It was called a MUDdog ... you got on one of the dumb terminals over in the computer science lab, logged in, entered a few commands and you were suddenly immersed in this text world. I was unimpressed. I had Zork on the Commodore-64 at home, thank you very much.

This was different, she insisted. Through the campus connection, this text world was populated with real people from around the globe. You could talk with them and interact with them in real time!

I tried it for a lark one Saturday when I didn't have anything else planned. Walked up to campus ... logged in ... and eight hours later I finally looked at my watch.

I've been hooked on various types of online communities ever since.

As someone who is always fascinated by human interactions, as someone who can't help but be an observer as well as a participator ... as a writer ... I am utterly enthralled by the microcosms of society that we set up online.

MUDS, chatrooms, IRC channels, "Web 2.0 sites," blogs, shoutboxes, forums (technically that's fora, but I try to go with the flow).

General public, special interests, moms, dads, writers, non-writers, artists, dog-lovers, cat-lovers, extroverts, introverts, introverts who become extroverts online.

Invariably it happens.

Invariably someone trots out their fervent belief in X. And X might be a product, a method of doing something, a religion, a favourite actor or politician or writer ... or whatever.

And just as invariably, someone else takes a polar opposite view.

Now, things can go a couple of ways at this point. It might be we have a nice, logical, rational discussion about the pros and cons of X. Of course, this is the least likely scenario, but it does happen.

Another option: things get heated. X is vilified. X is extolled. Vilified. Extolled. On and on and on. Neither side listens to the other and you literally get an extremist jihad, crusade, holy war of whatever flavour you wish to call it. Sides are drawn up. The inevitable rhetoric gets trotted out: "you're either for us or against us" ... "there is no middle ground" ... "well you know what I mean."

The option that goes one step beyond that is this: X is vilified and so is "that damn dipshit who said X was good." "You're delusional and anyone who thinks like you is delusional."

It seems that even when we speak the same language, we still live in a tower of babel. We still struggle to make our words understood ... to feel that we are being respected and heard and believed. And often, despite what we are sure is plain language and crystalline logic ... other people fail to get our point ... fail to agree. And obviously, the failure is almost inevitably theirs, as we have been perfectly clear and rational.

Over the last two weeks I have watched as two of the three online communities I participate in had serious melt-downs. Honestly, it's nothing I haven't seen before. Ideas being denigrated, people being denigrated, people feeling sure they were denigrated when they were not ... all because emotions were running high.

Often, it's like watching a bunch of junior high age kids (13-15 or so). Kids that age are still learning the finer social mores and how to converse without pissing people off. They speak plainly and say exactly what they mean ... but often their vocabulary does not include any grey area at all. The idea that words have connotations generally escapes them. The concept that words, despite our best efforts to deny this, words do hurt us. Or at least they frustrate us. (And please note that there are plenty of teens who do get this concept ... and there are plenty who don't learn this concept ever. This is merely a developmental stage and a generalization.)

Online, we add to this type of social group the fact that there is no good way to discern body language and vocal tone ... and often we misinterpret words that were not meant in the ways we see on the screen. And, sometimes, no matter how hard we try to craft those words to elicit in every person who reads them exactly and precisely what we mean ... all that work is simply lost in the babel of pixels and previous experience and the mind of the individual reader.

It is in watching these explosions happen online, where you can see each piece of the misunderstanding beginning to unfold and then to blossom and the fruit to explode, spreading its pollen of dissent over the entire participatory community ... it is watching this microcosm mushroom online that we truly see the babel of concept and idea which in the so-called "real world" leads to fighting and war. It's an amazing and, when put in this light, terrifying event to watch.

It starts so very simply.

And it is played out over and over and over again. As soon as one segment of a community finally "gets" how these things get started ... when a few people suddenly realize that they ways in which they phrase things matter AND that they become more capable of trying to take the other side's ideas as something to respect despite disagreeing (and perhaps disagreeing vehemently) ... as soon as this happens, another group comes along who has not yet learned these concepts ... and the battles begin anew.

It is the curse of our relatively short life spans and our frequent procreation and our different rates of learning and comprehending - as a race we seem compelled to play this scenario out over and over and over again.

Whether it's the mud-slinging of an American presidential "season" ... whether it's "your tree's leaves are falling in MY yard" ... or "your people are creating problems" ... or "your actions are eroding the atmosphere" ... "we don't want your sort here" ... "you don't believe as we do."

We bag and tag and categorize each other out of existence so that we don't have to listen to the conceptual babel and weigh all sides.

And even when we have learned the lessons and we try to stay calm and rational ... there is always human frailty, exhaustion ... and a point when someone else's rhetoric finally crosses a line beyond which we feel a moral imperative to call them on it because to not call them on that particular phrasing or concept is to allow an intolerable situation to thrive.

It doesn't ever end. And it feels like "we" never learn.

But whether the babel is language based or conceptually based, it is a constant of human existence. We are locked into our own skulls with wiring and operating systems only somewhat compatible with the others around us.

Our lives are never-ending attempts to connect and to forever try to understand and be understood in the face of failures and partial compatibilities.

Our strength lies in our stubborn certainty that we can finally find the right cord for connection and the right version of the operating system to achieve a true and deep melding.

I'm reminded of a book I never really liked, but I adored one single line. (Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero)

"People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles." Though that sentence shouldn't bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter.

We are individuals afraid to merge ... and yet seeking to be understood so fully that we do merge ... which frightens us more and makes the need to be understood more fervent and powerful.

People are afraid to merge. To lose some aspect of their true selves? Fear that to understand all is to dislike? To find out some idea we might have about that person is false?

People are afraid to merge so we build these towers and walls to protect our thoughts and minds and feelings ... our individuality.

And then we wonder why others do not see things our way, not realizing that the bricks and stones and concrete of our towers and bunkers are simply not transparent. They don't just protect us and shield us, but they blind us to where others are.

Even our most fervently held beliefs are simply stones in the wall, often preventing us from understanding someone else. And when someone doesn't understand us when we think they should ... so often we begin casting our stones at them, trying to bury them in our beliefs - sometimes without even realizing we're doing it. Of course, this only makes us build our own walls thicker and higher ...

... and people are afraid to merge.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:51 AM | Blog | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

February 6, 2008

Fade to Black

So the official report is in. Accidental overdose of 6 different prescription drugs. It's not so much that it was an overdose as it was a lethal combination. Xanax, Oxycontin, Ibuprofen, Valium, Restoril, Unisom ... none taken to excess ... just a bad combination of several drugs.

All of this brings up the death of River some 15 years earlier. The cases may not be parallel ... but to someone who only knew them and appreciated their work in film ... it feels much the same. Life taken too early, too clumsily. Someone with whom I identified despite the fact that I do not subscribe to the Cult of the Celebrity.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:02 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 29, 2008

Dreaming ...

It is a well known fact to anyone who knows me at all well, that I hate winter with a fiery passion. That, in fact, I proclaimed in CCD (think Catholic Sunday School) loudly and frequently that hell was not hot, but cold. Naturally, the parents who'd volunteered to teach were scandalized but hardly knew what to do with a child who simply out-logic'd them about the issue. (Well, we say "left out in the cold" when someone leaves us ... or "turns a cold shoulder," right? And if hell is the absence of God ... then God has given those in hell the cold shoulder and therefore, OBVIOUSLY, hell is cold. These poor volunteer teachers just kind of blinked at me and ignored the issue all together.)

Come to think of it, this is the way most adults tended to deal with me. Anyway.

I talked in an earlier post this month about when I first moved to Arlington and began attending Butler Elementary. There was one area we used to stage our Pretend games of Hardy Boys ... Nancy Drew when Tracy got upset and put her foot down about us playing at being boys. Sometimes Star Wars and sometimes we just made stuff up. There was a tree that was our front door ... another that helped delineate the "rooms" of our "house." Another that I climbed incessantly despite the fact that tree climbing was expressly forbidden. (And it's a measure of how invisible I felt ... and possibly how much the teachers knew what "being in trouble" meant to me ... that they sometimes walked right underneath the tree I was in and never said a word ... despite the little ratty tattle-tales.)

But this place ... this place was for dreaming and the photo does not even begin to do it justice.

Elementary school valley

If you click through, a desktop wallpaper version will pop up ... 1680x1260.

That rock, that's flat to the ground, mostly buried ... yeah, over there on the bottom, kind of to the right. We used to sit on that and look down into that little "valley" below us and just dream. We were always quiet and serious there. Some places just ask that of you and even grade-schoolers can sense it. Later, when recess was a little less about games of Let's Pretend and a little more ... for me, anyway ... trying to figure out life, the universe and everything, I can remember laying on my back, watching the sky ... trying to find a way to watch the sky and my little valley at the same time ... and, of course, solve all the issues in the universe. All in a 30 minute recess.

For me, the small pathway entrance into the woods represented so many different things. And that clearing you had to pass to get to it. Completely exposed ... except because it was a "valley" ... the teachers couldn't see us if we went down there.

I know my love of that spot drove most of our teachers crazy. It was at the very, very edge of our "safe" playground area. Going down to that valley, or worse, into the woods, was strictly forbidden. The kind of forbidden that kids hate because you can feel the adults' fear behind the edict ... when they are honestly scared that "bad things" will happen to any child who disobeys. It's a very different feel from the arbitrary, we're-imposing-order-upon-you kinds of rules.

And, to be honest, the entire time I went to Butler, at least once a year there were reports of "flashers" in raincoats just waiting to show off for some kid. And, there was a creek which ran through the narrow strip of woods ... home to the ever-lovely cottonmouths (water moccasins).

For me, the woods represented something else completely. Some flashes of a special place. Tinged with hints of fear. Coloured with a need to explore and discover and learn. A need to know and put an end to something that I couldn't name ... and at the same time I was terrified that I was not ready to know what answers the woods might hold, what they might unlock.

Our teachers took small groups through the woods on science expeditions from time to time. And I could see where the older kids ... the neighborhood kids had set up BMX bike ramps and obstacles. A rope swing to get across the creek.

The magic of the woods danced on the unknown edges during these excursions, as if the mere presence of adults ... of a gaggle of other children ... forced the things I needed further away into the undergrowth ... dancing up the vines into the treetops ... lurking in the gaping wounds of some of the tree trunks.

A couple of times, when I was near the end of elementary school ... when I had started junior high and was playing one summer, I went into the woods alone, hoping to unlock this thing that kept teasing me. Nothing bad ever happened. I saw a couple of other kids, playing. No adults. No snakes.

And no answers to my mystery, either.

Despite the fact that the woods taunted me from my recess perch ... when I was finally able to explore them, I was left with one conclusion:

These were the wrong woods.

Beautiful and interesting in their own right. Mysterious and captivating.

But these woods were not, after all, my woods.

And my woods ... Balcones Woods ... back in Austin ... those had been torn down.

I would have to find my answers another way.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:23 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | Vacations and Photos | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 16, 2008

It

In high school, I wrote my first complete novel. I'd been attempting novels since the sixth grade, but I had this amazing dream early in my senior year of high school and spun it into a novel. It turned out to be a horror novel, which surprised me. I'd never read any horror books and thought they were probably all lame - scandalous elitism (hush, cabal) from someone who loved science fiction and fantasy books. So, I decided to read Stephen King to see how I stacked up. I found Carrie interesting and appalling both. It was interesting enough ... too short ... definitely a writer's "early" work ... and great googly moogly, but I could write that well. Sheesh, if that was the bar for getting published ....

And then I read Stephen King's It. I was hooked on Stevie-Boy for life at that point. My friend Andy dragged me to go see Stand By Me. Again, I was mesmerized. Stevie-Boy and I thought a heck of a lot alike.

What hooked me the most was his ability to write characters and to understand them so very well that not only do you get deep insight into many of them, but the interplay between characters, particularly in "The Body" and It, is almost to be one of the gang. What was particularly poignant for me was a line near the end of chapter 32 of "The Body" novella in the Different Seasons collection:

Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant, did you ever notice that?

We moved so often when I was little, friends were hard to come by for me and they were precious. So while I understood that you lost friends and made new ones when you moved, I was searching for stability in my friends ... and I didn't understand how they could move in and out of each others' lives and mine so "easily."

A fast breakdown for those who haven't read the blog long:
born in Amarillo, Texas; moved to Houston, another place in Houston; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Oklahoma City; Carmel, Indiana; Austin, Texas. Then I started kindergarten in Pillow Elementary. Second grade at St. Louis Catholic School. Began third grade back at Pillow, but after the first six weeks of the year, we moved to Arlington, Texas. Out of six possible semesters of junior high, I had 3 at Nichols and 3 at Shackelford. High school was blissfully the same all three years.

Despite having both a mother and a father, a "stable" family unit ... my life was anything but stable. I was always waiting for the next time I would have to move on. I was terrified to make friends and too lonely to not make them.

I can remember the first weeks of third grade at my third new school in as many years vividly. Being introduced to Carrie Thompson, who was to be my "official" friend and show me around the school ... show me the ropes, as it were. We became good acquaintances ... she came over to my house and I went to hers, but we didn't seem to have a great deal in common. And then I stumbled into Tracy and Jill. We seemed to hit it off well at first. Recess games were fun. We hung together in Language Arts class. But, unbeknownst to me, Tracy and I had some similar family issues which made us both bull-headed in different ways. For Tracy, it was a need - and this is totally my interpretation and may not be at all how she sees things - but it seems to me she had a need to be in charge and to not let anyone truly outshine her. I don't think she wanted to be noticed any more than I did, really. But she was determined not to be at the bottom, either.

So for the first week or two that the three of us were friends, Tracy ran our schoolwork with a fist more iron than that of the teacher. Third grade in the 70s consisted of mimeographed purple worksheets. Half the time, the sheets were still damp from the machine and sadly lacking a grape smell that might have made the purple colouring tolerable. Tracy would tell us what number to work to. Maybe to number ten. Then you would stop and wait for the others to catch up. That way, we could all be twinkies and turn our papers in at the same time. I soon learned it was so Tracy wouldn't be the last one to turn in her worksheet, but that we could all three turn them in together.

Our school was "Open Concept" which was, in general, an utterly hellish educational experiment of the 70s and 80s:

Years before the recognition of Attention Deficit Disorder issues, Butler Elementary began as an "open concept" school, with grades one through six in one large "room" of the building. Each grade level was "divided" by rolling bookcases about five feet high and more of these bookcases were used to lightly subdivide each "classroom" within a grade level. Teachers' desks were in a cluster in the center of the grade level area.

I struggled at the beginning of that year. I was put in the second high language arts and math classes at first, despite the fact that at my old school, I was much further ahead in both subjects. When I was finally bumped up, to the "high" classes, they were still behind where I had been at Pillow. So it didn't take long at all before I tired of waiting for Tracy to catch up on the worksheets. And the day I did, despite how much I wanted to make BFF with Tracy and Jill, was the day that I inadvertently started a war.

I remember clearly working on the purple inked paper. Looking over to see where Jill was. And then looking over to see how far behind Tracy was. There was just no way. I couldn't pull out a book and read until I was finished with my worksheets. And I just couldn't sit there and wait for Tracy to catch up any longer. I continued working on the worksheet. When Jill reached the requisite number, she turned to look at my worksheet. The look on her face ... panic. Alarm. And that probably should have been a warning to me as to how Tracy would react. Jill looked over at Tracy's worksheet. Back at mine. I remember her hesitating. Shrugging her shoulders. And continuing her own work.

When Tracy finally got to the stopping point, she looked at Jill's paper. Shocked and betrayed. Looked over at mine. The look of terror and anger both overwhelmed me. I hadn't expected this. I didn't mean for it to be a big deal. I just couldn't wait any more.

Tracy, however, saw it as my attempt to usurp her power. She burst into tears and told the teacher that I had called her a name or some such nonsense. I was shocked. The look of loathing on her face. And from that moment on, the war was on. For the rest of third grade and fourth grade, we did remain friends ... and even added new people to our little group. But from that point on, Tracy was diligent about remaining in charge and largely held that group of four together through high school.

And partly because I didn't see the point in "being in charge" of my friends ... and partly because I was terrified to even attempt to make other friends, I tried not to fight her. Even when she got ticked off and "hired" boys to come beat me up during recess. (Oddly enough, the closest one ever came to beating me up was a boy who fought like a girl, all cat scratches and no good solid roundhouses.) She would always tell me that she didn't do it, but invariably when I asked the boy why in the hell he was attacking me, he'd always say, "Tracy asked me to."

By fifth grade, I had no friends to speak of. Tracy had finally gotten furious with me for something I can't recall and commanded everyone in our group to stop having anything to do with me. For my part, I was tired of fighting with her and I simply stopped even trying to hang out with the others in our group. It was simply no longer worth it. I eventually did make other friends, but it wasn't until ninth grade that I had really close friends again.

And perhaps this is why Stephen King's "The Body" and It speak so poignantly to me. Both books revolve around the concept of friendship, of doing anything for your friends and of knowing them well enough to know their weaknesses not so much to exploit them (although teasing is, of course, perfectly acceptable), but to keep them out of trouble and to protect them from others.

Gordie and Chris from "The Body," knew that their families were ... let's say not supportive. Chris' family was outright abusive and the surrounding community simply abused Chris further. Gordie's family ignored him. The boys became family for each other. Teddy's family was also extremely abusive and Vern's was a little harder to read (or I don't remember it as well). Certainly Vern's older brother was not going to win any good brother awards .... But, despite the fact that the four boys were something of a family to each other, Vern and Teddy slipped away ... "like busboys in a restaurant." Chris and Gordie continued to be family to each other.

In It, there is a larger group of children and a definite set of enemies for them to fight. (One supernatural and one set was "mundane.") And again, the children bind together in an exceedingly strong family for the duration of the crisis. (The slipping apart has more to do with the supernatural plotline, so I'll skip that.)

I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12 - Jesus, did you?

Those friends for me didn't come until later, until I was 14 or 15 or so. And that was largely my own fault as I had simply never learned to be human enough to truly let potential friends in. Even still, I found it difficult to let my friends know just how important they were.

And, I suppose, that ruminating on all of this is why I have been trying so hard to hook back up with the people I knew in high school (and some of them even longer than that). It is partly a reality check on my memories (do you remember when we did ...) - but it's largely because to me, my close friends were like family to me then and I've always hated that we let that connection slip away. On my end it was simple fear that I had imagined that connection and that they meant far more to me than I to them. On their ends?

I've no idea.

I love that I've reconnected with some of them. One of them is even from Tracy's little group, although she wasn't part of the fighting from third grade, and, in fact, was friendly with me all throughout school and even college. I'm proud of her like I'm proud of my buddy, Andy. Like I would be proud of siblings. There is still that family connection to me.

I know now that a portion of this is that we do have families of choice as well as families of origin ... and that this is especially true when there was significant childhood trauma involving the family of origin. But I don't know how to express what I'm thinking and feeling at this moment ... just trying to explain what those old friends meant and still mean. I'd hoped by this point in the post, I'd be able to say something meaningful ... but because we do think so much alike, instead I'm left with one last quote from Stephen King's "The Body":

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them - words shrink things that seemed limitless...

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:46 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 10, 2007

WTF is WRONG with People?

So here's the deal:

I'm pissed off. Like seriously pissed off.

I have a friend who has not had the world's easiest life. Dealt a crap hand in terms of parents. Neighbors who knew and did nothing. Left home before finishing high school ... and yet still finished high school. Had to work to support herself. Did so. Did good, valuable and helpful work ... but day care teachers don't make a whole lot. If I'm remembering correctly, she was working two jobs when we met. A nursery school during the day and a drop-in day care in the evenings.

This is someone I admire a hell of a lot. She kept trying to pull ahead to do everything she needed to do to take care of herself and be independent. Took classes at the junior college as she could afford it.

But when I say dealt a crap hand in terms of parents ... I kind of understated that. A LOT. Which created some issues. Which to be perfectly honest, she tried her best to deal with. And she was doing the work that needed to be done. But, as they say, shit happens. Better described, various health problems happened.

And, despite there being real health issues, the doctors apparently decided she was just another hysterical female. The blew off things that they should have pursued. Hospital stays finally cost her her jobs. And the shit continued to happen. And she continued fighting and trying to do everything possible to stay independent and together.

Finally, she was getting dizzy and falling. Back issues. The docs kept putting things off. She wasn't a priority. She could wait.

She tripped in her living room and fell. Not down a flight of stairs or anything. Just fell.

Blew out three vertebrae. Paralyzed. Stuck in a nursing home.

Now to be perfectly honest, I'm pissed off enough about all of that. I wanna holler that little kid plea, "It's not fair!" And it's not fair, but it's life. That's the way this shit goes, I guess.

But what has me really hot now is that she's dependent on the nursing home. Despite all these years of trying to make sure she stayed independent. And they are NOT taking care of her; they're making it as difficult as possible for her to do much of anything.

And the last straw for me is this:
She was using a transfer board to get from her bed to her wheelchair. Fell. Broke her tibia.

I found out last night that the doctors didn't even bother to set the leg. It's still swollen. She may be in a wheelchair, but she's paralyzed - and still has feeling in her legs - and the leg still freaking hurts. They put a short boot on her and called it done. Last night a nurse told her the only way to set the leg was through surgery ... and with a pulmonary embolism, dead spots on the lungs ... surgery is not really an option.

But I just can't believe that this is the best care. I just can't believe that just putting a short boot on someone and calling it good enough is standard care in this situation.

I'm tired of people treating people like crap. Why can't they just do their damn jobs? If you're in a profession to HELP people, then freaking HELP THEM. What the hell is with this ignoring them or thinking that crappy care is "good enough" for those people? I mean really. Why do people have to be like that? It's not that hard to do what's right, especially when it's your job. Why do so many people have to take this "easy" out of just being lazy?

WTF is wrong with people anyway?

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:58 PM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 4, 2007

The Violence Cop-Out

I am sick and tired of hearing people claim that violent video games and violent music and violent movies cause more and more violence.

What a simplistic way of looking at the world.

The real truth is that how we choose to deal with and process these media can create more violence ... or more peace.

I'll be honest. I haven't played a video game formally labeled violent since my C-64 with the original Castle Wolfenstein games, 50 Mission Crush (oh, how I miss that one) and a G.I. Joe game. But, even in the Tony Hawk games I adore, there is still violence. The cops often try to knock the skaters down and in the latest game you can now skate-check (knock down a pedestrian). There's other "mild" violence along the same lines.

Does this make the game violent? Certainly that portion is. But does it make the game players violent?

When I am frustrated in my Tony Hawk games, I have a tendency to smash the skater into a wall. Violent? Well, it is pixel violence. But for me, at least, this is a safe release of aggression. It hurts no one. My little pixel skater may look bloodied for a moment, but no being feels the pain.

I would never do the same thing to a person. That is a harmful release of tension and frustration.

And this is the real dilemma.

Do we consciously choose our paths? Do we think?

As adults with children or with children in our sometimes care, do we think?

Our children at age 7, 10 and some even at 15 cannot fully process through these distinctions I've made. It is up to us to limit their playing time and to discuss with them what they see and play on the screen. The real threat to our children is not so much the video game where they might get the idea to push a friend off their skateboard and down a hill -- kids have been doing that or its equivalent for decades. Pushing each other out of trees, down basement steps, holding each other under water, beating the crap out of each other -- learning the physical consequences and limitations and not always with good results.

The real threat is what it has always been: adult passivity and assumption that discussion will go unheeded or is not necessary.

If I let my 10 year old play a wrestling video game, I personally want to:


  1. limit the time the kid can play

  2. discuss appropriate behaviour (these activities stay in the game only)

  3. discuss the emotional impact the game has (feeling hyper or invincible after the game has been turned off, etc)

If the kid doesn't want to agree to this preliminary contract, we're not getting the game. Period. I don't care if every kid in the school from kindergarten on up has the thing. We won't have it.

Chances are, unless my 10 year old is really mature, I don't really want the kid playing a wrestling game. Kids at that age tend to be very physically experimental ... and kinda clumsy. They wrestle on their own enough as it is. If the game is one that I think might be okay, then I'm going to rent it and play it at night after the kid goes to bed. Test it out. See what's in it. Google the game and look at the forums which discuss the gameplay -- NOT simply trust what the news media reports about it.

That takes a lot of time. A lot of involvement and time. In a life already filled with so many demands on our time ... work ... our partner ... the kids' school ... the kids' activities ... enrichment time with the kids ... date time with our partners ... keeping the house fit ... there's not necessarily a lot of time to go investigating every fad video game (or movie or music). It's easy to use the rating system and say no. Or to use the rating system and assume that your values and the values of the rating system are the same. It's easy to get tired of the kids nagging about a game and they're so contained whilst playing.

And that's the cop-out. Allowing ourselves to get so tired that we are just glad the kids are out of our hair for a while and not wanting to look too closely at what they're doing. It's easy to get that tired. And when we get that tired, we get apathetic or at least lose the "umph" behind our drive.

I have a friend who belongs to a very peaceful, non-violent faith. And he's raising his kids in the U.S., which at times seems to be completely counter to his beliefs. He got the LEGO Star Wars video game for his kids. After all, there are no people in the game, just LEGO mini-figs. There's no real violence, just LEGO bricks coming apart when hit with a light saber or bolts from the vehicles.

But, rather than assume this was fine, he observed his children's behaviour after playing the game. And with a large age range gap between the four, he noticed an increase in how hyper the kids got ... and that their games were becoming a little too rambunctious and violent. The game went away. Perhaps when the youngest is older, that game might come back out ... perhaps not. Maybe it hits the kids' imaginations just right that they can't really leave the hyper after-effects alone.

He was involved. He consciously thought about the game, played it with them, let them play it ... and observed them. Took it away as a test and brought it back. Observed. Decided.

I admire that. So many parents make blanket rules about music or movies or video games based on the scare tactics in the media, based on sound bytes.

But, what they forget is that most of our children in the U.S. don't have the kind of playground they did in the '50s and '60s ... and even the '70s and '80s. Instead, many parents now know that the local woods is a hangout for bad guys (even when it's not). That the playground equipment is dangerous and a kid can break a neck falling off. That BB gun wars can result in shooting someone's eye out. That building a treehouse can result in a busted leg or broken neck. That racing bikes down a hill can lead to road rash or even a car collision and a coma. That straying too far from the apartment can take them into gang territory or bring them to the attention of the building's dealer.

So many children are often left with less territory to explore. Less time to experiment and learn about their physical surroundings. It's no wonder, then, that they don't want to heed our exhortations to go play in the backyard but would rather explore the territory of Gaia or Warcraft. They must feel as if they have no room to explore and grow ... and most kids I know are scared to go more than a couple of blocks on their own. (I'm thinking of kids around the age of 10-12, here.)

Of course they think video games are cool. Look at all the exploration they can do.

If we have to take away their territory, we have to offer something in return or we run the risk of raising children who cannot think on their feet. We run the risk of raising children who are stagnant, rules-bound to an unhealthy extent.

It's a scary thing. But we cannot and we should not, keep our children so wrapped in foam rubber and bubble plastic that they cannot fall. Of course we don't want them to feel the pain of a broken arm or a scraped knee. Of course we want them to understand that if they jump off a friend's two story house, they are NOT going to make it all the way to the next roof. (I saw some idiot teenager try that whilst I was watching G4's Attack of the Show last night.) Of course we prefer they learn this without having to physically feel these things. But sometimes, this is the only way they learn. We don't encourage it, but it happens because they explore.

Of course, this still doesn't quite address the issue most people seem to feel is core: do violent video games breed violent people? Do they desensitize us to violence and thus make us think it's not such a bad thing? Do they create reflexes which might be unconsciously triggered in a stress situation? Do they somehow warp our minds?

For the most part, I think the answer lies in our own personal sense of responsibility. Do we play these games completely mindlessly and ask the game to do the thinking for us?

Or do we reflect on our feelings and behaviours after the game has been turned off?

See, I heard these same arguments back before the surge of violent video games. Only then, people complained about Dungeons and Dragons. That game only attracted malcontents who were going to go physically and emotionally ballistic if the game didn't go their way. It taught kids to be violent. It made them crazy.

I heard many of the same complaints back in the day which are now made of video games. And I still believe that game "violence" whether it is the imaginative discussion of D&D, the board game of Risk or most video games ... can be a healthy violence which is simply a release of tension and frustration, no different from getting angry and clobbering a pillow. It's a safe release in which no one gets hurt.

The question I have avoided until now is the question of the ultra-realistic games. The driving games which are played with a responsive steering wheel controller. The first person shooter games.

Here again, we are talking about maturity and self-reflection.

I have an old PS1 game called Sledstorm. Competitive snowmobiling. Kinda tame in terms of violence, but one thing you try to do in the game is run over the little bunny that darts across your way. You have a choice. It's not a goal of the game. You can miss him. (Believe me, it's easy to miss the little blighter.) But you get 1000 "easy" points if you hit him. It became a mark of precision for me to nail the speedy little bunny - something I would NEVER do in real life.

But, after playing the game one evening, my partner and I drove out to dinner. In the dusk of the evening, a cat dashed out in front of my car, just blocks from our house.

My muscles twitched.

I didn't even jerk the wheel; my partner had no idea. But I did. My muscles twitched. I'd been playing the game for a while and played right up until the moment we left the house. I was still at least partially in game mode and I didn't like that muscle twitch.

So, after that, I always left myself a half hour to decompress after playing that game before I would get behind the wheel. I never had another muscle twitch after playing the game and then driving. That half hour was plenty of time for me to completely mentally leave the game.

Of course, a 10 year old is probably not that self-reflexive and probably doesn't notice that level of cause and effect. So naturally, they don't see the point that adults try to make about why too much video game time can be bad. But we're the adults. That's why we have to be involved and observe and discuss trends with the kids. That's how they're going to learn.

It certainly won't make you the most popular parent. There will be plenty of eye-rolling. That's obligatory and I'd worry if they did not do that. But they will also know that you care. And, if you do it right, they'll know you're listening to them. And that goes a long way, even when they disagree with you.

At any rate, I certainly wouldn't want my "just got a license" teen playing Grand Theft Auto or Need for Speed or Nascar 2007 and then getting behind the wheel. We're gonna have to talk rules and limitations. We're going to have to negotiate some deals.

But what about first person shooter games?

Here I will admit that I am much more torn. Those games are not fun for me. In fact, they're pretty boring and I'm personally kind of appalled with most of them. They have a place, though. I can see hunters really enjoying their "off-season" by playing the hunting games. That seems pretty logical.

But what about the Halo games, the SOCOM even some of the Star Wars battle games?

It's funny. I enjoyed the original Castle Wolfenstein game, which eventually spawned the popularity of the first person shooter game. What I liked about it was the strategy mixed with some early attempts at randomness. Also, those early video games were obviously pixel violence and not realistic at all. When Wolfenstein went "3D," I lost interest. It was too disorienting and sometimes too graphic for me.

That's my personal taste, however. I can see many legitimate reasons for enjoying those games. Just as my bashing my Tony Hawk skater into a wall to "punish" the little pixel darling is simply a safe release of tension or frustration, I would rather come home from a shitty day at work and blow up Nazis in Call of Duty than to let the frustration simmer and perhaps take it out on my family ... even if that was "only" yelling at them unnecessarily.

However, I do think that self-reflection is an even more important requirement of playing the first person shooter games than some of the other genres.

It's certainly not a genre of games I want my 10 year old to play. 15 year old? Probably not, but here we really run into the personality and maturity of the teen. Is this a kid gung-ho to be an officer in the Army? Maybe we should spend some time together playing Call of Duty or Halo 3. After all, I'm not going to watch my 15 year old every single minute of every 24 hour period and if I completely and totally forbid it, the kid will probably go to a friend's house to play.

Which, of course, brings up the ubiquitous argument: "but we can't control our kids when they are not home." Which for some people correlates to: therefore violent video games, music, movies should not be made.

It's true that we can't control our kids when they're not home. But here's the deal, we raise our children as best we can, instilling our values and our experiences as best we can, and as they grow older and we allow them out of our direct supervision more and more, we must trust that our teachings will hold. Yes, a 15 year old who is not allowed to play Halo 3 at home will more than likely play it at a friend's house given the opportunity and peer pressure. Perhaps the kid will resist, perhaps give in.

Playing the game for the three hours whilst over at a friend's house is not going to make your child suddenly violent.

If your kid is at that friend's house every day, unsupervised ... if the kid has no release for the plethora of teen emotions building up ... then, yeah, that kid might get violent. If the kid feels neglected or ignored, chances are pretty good on eventual violence.

But it's not the game causing that. It might act as a catalyst for an already troubled person. But that person has chosen to NOT discuss their feelings. Has chosen to NOT find other outlets. Has chosen to NOT be self-reflective. And, ultimately, has chosen NOT to accept personal responsibility.

And if that's your kid and you have chosen to NOT engage ... then you are also at fault for not helping your child learn how to release tension and frustration in healthy and harmless ways.

Now, there is also the issue of mental illness, and I don't include that in this discussion. That's a whole 'nother ball of wax. I'm talking "garden variety" teenager and parents.

The other issue I'm leaving out of this particular post is when parents are simply and honestly not able to spend enough time supervising their children and teens (having to work multiple jobs, single parents and the like). Again, that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.

Even the first person shooter video games, to a self-reflective and honest person, do not cause us to act violently. We choose violence. We can argue that some of these realistic games hone violent skills ... I think we are reaching a point in video game technology where that is very true.

But it's not the games that cause violence. It's our own choice. Our own frustrations and inability to deal with them. The games and music and movies can be cathartic ... or they can simply cause us to turn in on ourselves and refuse to think. But the choice is ultimately our own.

Can we instill in our children the ability to be self-reflective? to take personal responsibility? to live deliberately?

Or are we too tired to take personal responsibility ourselves and instead grab the nearest scapegoat?

The choice, as always, is our own.

Will you take the red pill ... or the blue?

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:01 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 25, 2007

Enough With the Drama!

I love to watch home construction shows. Not the commercial-ness of something like Flip That House or whatever it's called, but something like Extreme Home Makeover where the house is torn down and re-built? Now that I love.

And, I'll admit, I enjoy seeing people who would otherwise fall through the cracks get a shot at something really cool. I mean, there was the woman who just kept taking in foster kids ... a family whose teenaged son became paralyzed ... a variety of different situations where families need healing as a family ... and some space and stuff as well. I mean, there was the girl who was UV "sensitive" ... she was essentially allergic to the sun. The show installed special windows so that natural light could come into the house without harming the little girl ... and they also set up some specially treated canvas in the backyard so that she could go out in the back without getting ill as well.

The family they're helping for the 100th family is equally deserving. The Swenson-Lee family is a blended family, but not blended in the way that you think. The Swensons have a girl, twins and another baby on the way.

The Lees were a mom, dad two girls and two boys. Then, Dad and the oldest girl were in a car wreck. The car rolled and all young Taylor remembers, is the vehicle rolling and then the ambulance trip. Her father was dead. At the age of twelve, her mom's ex-boyfriend became violent. Broke into the house and tried to kill her mother. Her mom did all the right legal things. Swore out the complaints. Had the restraining order filled out. Her new boyfriend stayed the night at their house because the ex was still threatening to harm her.

Taylor was afraid one night. She just had a bad feeling. So, she slept in her mom's room.

The ex-boyfriend came back. With a gun.

Twelve-year-old Taylor was in the room when her mother and her mother's boyfriend were shot and killed.

So, the Swenson family (the mothers were sisters) became the Swenson-Lee family.

It's a hell of a story. The kids are obviously traumatised. And the Swensons had never counted on being a family of ten people.

Enter Ty Pennington and Extreme Home Makeover. While the Swensons had a nice house, one that would have been big enough for their family of six ... but adding another four kids really cramped the house back up.

Now, one of the important things that this show does is to match the people with style they like. For the kids that usually involves a room that really reflects their interests and personalities ... skateboarding, France, etc. For a kid like Taylor who has had such a rough time, having something that is just hers is really important and will help her healing.

So the fact that the show exists ... the work that it does ... I like all of that.

But Ty Pennington scares me. That man has more personality than should be humanly possible. He's annoying and pushy and I think he must have some severe hearing loss cuz he is LOUD.

But even that is something I can live with.

What pisses me off is the artificial drama they try to create.

There was NO reason to take the two young boys and ask them ... after discussing how hard it is to have lost their parents ... if they could wish for one thing in the world, what would it be. Of course they teared up. Of course they said they'd wish their parents were alive again.

This story has enough tears in it. It's a natural drama. There is no reason to script additional tears just because.

I would rather see more of the designers deciding what they're doing ... what goes into deciding the floor plan ... how they build some of their nifty touches.

There's just no reason to force these people to relive their pain for ratings. If Extreme Home Makeover wants to do a good thing, then do a good thing. You're airing it, that's enough pats on your own back. There's no reason to tell the story over and over and over again to make sure that anyone strolling through the room whilst the show is airing knows how good Ty and ABC really are.

Enough with the artificial drama. It's unnecessary and hurts the families you purport to help.

As for the Swenson-Lee family? Like many of those chosen by the show, they're highly deserving. They've used this tragedy to try to bring more awareness to the problem of domestic violence. And, I suspect that they also requested that windows and doors and such that could be re-used be recycled to help other families which needed a little boost.

I'm happy for the Swenson-Lee family. They deserve some relaxed, peaceful and safe times. The fact that they are also trying to bring awareness to the problems of domestic violence only makes them even more special. Not everyone can turn tragedy into a cause to champion, much less such a good cause.

You see, there is a terrible balance to strike in the law when it comes to either domestic violence or child abuse. A cop can't arrest a person until after they've done something wrong. And, there are people who actually need to vent by saying stupid shit that they regret later. Not saying it's a good thing for them to do ... not saying that it's not terrifying to experience that. But mouthing off doesn't always equal action.

So, how do you know? How do you know when someone mouthing off is just mouthing off? How do you know when they actually mean it?

In terms of the law, it's impossible to tell. And, most police departments are not set to prevent crime ... they are there to investigate crimes which have already happened.

So for the Swenson-Lee family to work on creating awareness and to help their state begin looking at the laws ... it's a special story.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:02 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 19, 2007

Reflections

It's a big week this week for a lot of reasons. Thanksgiving will always be an odd time of year for me. I dreaded the coming of November as a child ... it meant the holidays were approaching and I preferred school to the winter holidays. Not so much because I was an academic geek, but because it gave me something constructive and often at least semi-fun to do. It meant I socialized with other kids.

Being home for the holidays, on the other hand, was stress. We were either preparing to go to Grandma's for Thanksgiving or we were preparing the meal at the house. And while Mom didn't do any spectacular meals at any time, she stressed out about them all the same.

But like so many things at our house, it was all stress and the appearance of tradition rather than reflection and tradition. We didn't really reflect on what we were thankful for as a family. Sometimes, because I was an odd child who genuinely enjoyed quiet contemplation (almost as much as I enjoyed babbling with friends at school) ... sometimes I would try to engage in that thankful reflection by myself. It generally turned into a plaintive wish for different parents, however, and since that simply wasn't what Thanksgiving was about, I eventually abandoned the attempts. And about the time I abandoned them, my mother would begin bringing it up at the dinner table, trying to force us to say every little thing we were grateful for: the house, our family, the house, our stuff, a father who was a good provider, our stuff, oh yeah our health ....

But it was rote answers. What we were supposed to say. Mom had already decided what we should be thankful for and we were supposed to rattle off the correct answers with the proper respect and "thought" in our voices. However, by that time I was a teenager, full of the teenager's contempt for fakery. I like to think that it would have been one thing if we'd been seriously contemplative rather than regurgitating Mom's answers ....

After I moved out of the house, Thanksgiving was simply a day that I neither went to work nor school. It was a day to make Koogali (an old family recipe which I intend to make, take pictures of and share with you one of these days). It was a day to relax and a day to work on the inevitable mess in the house. It was a day to get caught up before a long weekend of frenetic work. On rare occasions in those early years, it was a time for a family visit and dinner.

When I moved to Indiana for graduate school, Thanksgiving remained simply a day off work and school and nothing more. We didn't have the money to go back to Texas to visit. We didn't really cook unless I made Koogali ... perhaps we warmed up some store-cooked turkey ... maybe we made chicken breasts. My ex and I were not big on cooking.

At that time Thanksgiving, like all the holidays, were simply bittersweet to me. It was nice to have a day off. But it was also a reminder that I simply didn't have the kind of close-knit Leave It To Beaver kind of family that I longed for.

And then 1999 rolled around. I'd been sickly, off and on, for about 2 years. I kept going to the doctor and getting fed antibiotics. He wouldn't run even a simple blood test. I'm not a particularly sickly person and I was finally getting irritated and nervous by 1999. By the beginning of '99, I was now getting sick just about every other month. I knew something was not right, but my doctor was not doing anything except phoning in another round of antibiotics.

Monday, the week of Thanksgiving, I finally dragged myself down to a doc-in-the-box that afternoon. The older doctor there, semi-retired but still practicing for the love of his profession, instantly takes a blood test. I listen at the door as he calls my doctor and yells at him. This is not good.

Tuesday, I see my doctor again. He's going to send me to a specialist and he's ticked because I can't get in that same day. This doesn't sound good to me. All I know is my hemoglobin is a 5.8 and apparently that's not good.

Wednesday, I see the specialist. I'm given a bone marrow test (this doesn't sound good) and then asked which hospital did I prefer, St. Joe or Memorial? Umm, neither? This was not an option.

So, Thanksgiving of 1999 I spent in the hospital, no diagnosis ... the specialist turned out to be a hematology/ oncology specialist. I had no idea if I should be thankful to be alive ... or preparing for a painful death. It was Saturday before I found out that I had Hodgkin's, aka Cancer Lite.

In the past eight years, I've gone from an adjunct professor of first year writing (with no health bennies ... yes, cancer, chemo and no health insurance ... it was fun) ... to a full-time instructor with health bennies at that same school. In February of 2004 I was told that my services were no longer needed there, but that I was to finish out the school year. It was a very painful semester of teaching. I still miss teaching. Every day. But, full-time teaching gigs at the college level are not easy to come by. So, I looked elsewhere.

Thanksgiving of 2004, I had interviewed for a job as a copy writer at a dot com based locally. It was one of perhaps two interviews I'd had since I started really looking for a new position in April. I got that job and was to start the Monday after Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving of 2007 now ... and I was laid off in July. I'm thankful for the severance package I've got. But today I looked at our old website ... and I see that the new owners have finally taken it over. There's so little left of what we had done. The logo that Alan designed is still intact. The nifty triangles that I think Rob adapted from Alan are there. And that's about it. The first project I worked on there, a huge educational piece ... that's gone. All of the work that Warren, Cory, Alan, Rob, Bob and I did on the site design ... it's gone.

I've had just one good interview since July. And that was about 3 or 4 weeks ago, so I guess it's too much to hope that I managed to land that job. The interviewer did tell me that they had over 60 applicants for the one position. They interviewed 8 of us. I'm thankful to have been one of the 8. My ego needed that little warm fuzzy even if I didn't get the job.

So even while I'm thankful this year that I have a steady paycheck even if I don't have a job, that I'm not in the hospital facing a cancer diagnosis, that I have a partner who loves me, that my little sister is expecting her first baby in just 3 months, that I celebrated my 20 year high school reunion by re-connecting with several beloved friends, that some old relationships seem to be getting more healthy ...

... a part of reflection for me will always hold a certain wistfulness as well. I am thankful for those things and more. And yet, I regret that I haven't secured a new job yet, that I haven't used this time off to completely whip the house into shape, that I am still in Indiana and not Texas, that I still haven't gotten my life to the point where I can begin the rigmarole required for adopting a child, that I still have not managed to single-handedly bring about world peace and ended poverty, that I am unable to help a friend whom the system has neglected from the day she was born and who is now in a wheelchair and a nursing home because no one in the system will listen to her, that ....

The list always goes on and on until I do nothing but dwell on the fact that I am not a perfect super-being; I am merely a fallible human.

I am thankful. But rather than simply being thankful for what I have, I choose to focus on what I can accomplish still.

That one day I may learn to walk in balance, to walk in beauty, to walk in harmony.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:20 AM | Blog | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 15, 2007

His Birth Day ... EMDR

So last year on this date, I posted a rather disturbing picture. I didn't think much about it. It was an instinctual thing I was driven to make that evening ... and then post. I was, for some reason, surprised when MsDemmie asked about it and so, followed up with a bit of an explanation.

This year, the 15th of November was upon me without my hardly even realizing it. Last year I was compelled to commemorate ... this year, hardly a blink. Instead, I was thinking that the 15th of the month is when Gaia unveils that month's collectible item.

It wasn't until I got home from therapy that I realized what a momentous occasion today has been for me. I have found over the last several years of therapy (yes, and I thought I would work really hard and be completely done in a single year, maybe less ... what? I am NOT an over-achiever! lol) ... I've found that trying to process and move past a couple of very intense experiences when I was between 5 and 8 ... well, it just wasn't happening no matter how hard I tried. So, it's been off to a new therapist to try some specialised techniques.

Today we did EMDR on the most troubling of events. Quick description of EMDR is that it addresses events which were so intense that they were not fully processed ... and it does it by creating a physiological "calmness" to help you process. I've explained that badly. Scanning the "Description of Therapy" section of the EMDR article at Wikipedia will explain it better than I!

Today is my father's 68th birthday. And to "celebrate" that, I went to therapy and, for the moment at least, I reduced the power he has over me.

An odd sort of way to celebrate his birthday ... but one much more constructive than last year's (no matter how cathartic that little exercise was).

Amazing what an hour's work done in a new and different way can accomplish what some 30 years of trying to do was never able to accomplish. The brain is truly an amazing and incredible place.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:21 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 13, 2007

Rage

Let's ignore the computer issues whilst posting today, okay? Okay.

Before my computer went wonky, I was in the midst of contemplating writing about not just the school shooting in Finland, but the rage that precedes such events.

It seems to me that most of the "developed" or "Western" world has a serious issue at the moment. We have this incredible tension between the needs of the community and the needs of the individual. In the U.S. we see this tension even more sharply than some other civilised countries, I think, because there is a such an incredible emphasis on "you can be anything you want to be."

Unfortunately, the second half of that phrase has been left off of the popular culture: if you are willing to devote everything to that desire. And sometimes, realistically, not even then.

So let's say you are 15. You have reached that age by which you are at least starting to see through the pat answers and platitudes of the adults around you. You are now seeing through this myth that the "kids" around you will "grow up" and behave like "adults" ... and you see through this because it's becoming increasingly more clear to you that the adults around you often act as "childish" as the "popular" kids in your school.

You cannot do what you want.
You are expected to act more adult than the adults around you.
You are treated like a child.
You are beginning to believe that life does not actually get better after high school, just more complicated.
You are beginning to believe that those kids who have it easy in high school, the jocks, the rich kids, even the academic-oriented kids ... they are going to have everything.
You are beginning to believe that you are, in fact, not special.
Your hormones are coursing through your body, creating all sorts of havoc. And whilst you have heard this, it has happened so organically that it simply feels like this is your life, not hormones.

Why should others have it so easy? What have they done to deserve to have an easy life? Why do they get what they want when you have to struggle just to settle for your second or third choice? Dammit, "you can be anything you want to be" ... why do people say that? The privileged can be anything they want to be ... the rest of us can be grease monkeys instead of engineers ... CAD drafters instead of architects ... baggage handlers instead of pilots.

Charlie Decker, a high school senior, details how he had long been fighting his growing rage against the authority figures which populate his world. He finally snapped and hit one of his teachers with a heavy wrench he had taken to carrying in his pocket; after much wrangling and discussion, the incident was dropped and he was allowed to return to school. His mental problems only proceeded to get worse, and, as the actual story begins, during a meeting with the school principal, he snaps again. This time, he storms out of the meeting, goes to his locker and gets a gun he had previously taken from his father's desk. He sets the locker contents on fire, then proceeds to his classroom where he kills his math teacher Mrs. Underwood. The locker-fire sets off an alarm, and the school begins to be evacuated. Another teacher, Mr. Vance, comes into the classroom to tell the kids to leave, and Charlie shoots him as well. The school is evacuated even more quickly and the police and media arrive on the scene.
from Wikipedia

This is the plot beginning of Stephen King's least published Bachman book, Rage, published in 1977. King had asked his publishers to let the book drop out of print by 1999, after Michael Carneal killed three fellow students in Kentucky. Supposedly the boy had a copy of Rage in his locker. King stated at the Vermont Library Conference in 1999:

Do I think that Rage may have provoked Carneal, or any other badly adjusted young person, to resort to the gun? It's an important question, because it goes to the very heart of the wrangle over who's to blame. You might as well ask if I believe that the mere presence of a gun makes some people want to use that gun. The answer is troubling, but it needs to be faced: in some cases, yes. Probably it does. Often? No, I don't believe so. How often is too often? That's not for me or any other single person to say. It's a question each part of our society must answer for itself, as each state, for instance, must answer the question of when a kid is old enough to have a driver's license or buy a drink.

Some of us are equipped either by nature, nurture ... or by support network ... to work through the rage.

Others of us are not.

We question when an adult does something horrific. When an adult murders and murders, we want to know what causes someone to go so wrong.

But when a child strikes out, we wail. When it's a teen, we are on the fence. If a child is old enough to plot mayhem and destruction, then he should be considered an adult, according to some.

But the situation is simply not that pat.

The most poignant line of the excellent The Incredibles movie is when Dash and his mom are talking in the car. Helen tells her son, "Everyone's special, Dash." He replies, "Which is another way of saying no one is."

They are both correct and this tension between everyone being special in some way ... and the overemphasis of the too-simplistic "everyone is special" can create an unreasoning rage in hormone ridden teenagers.

What pushes one pissed off adolescent to mass murder, another to suicide, another to suffer through, and another to quietly implode?

I think this is the real question for us to ask when confronted with yet another school shooting.

In fact, this is the question for any person-induced tragedy, not just adolescents. We simply tend to be more apt to wail about a 15 year old than a 25 year old and wail more about a 25 year old than a 35 year old.

However, that kind of unthinking age discrimination frustrates me. That 35 year old has likely been carrying the rage of the 15 year old for 20 years, trying to control it, trying to grow past it. And one day, it just seems to finally be a pressure too much to bear.

When we couple this type of "it's unfair" rage with the size of our societies, it amazes me not that such incidents happen, but that they do not happen more often. Rather than speaking of worst of humanity, I think the fact that these explosions do not happen on such large scales more frequently, particularly in the larger areas, I'm amazed at how this speaks more of the inherent goodness prevalent within people that they can refrain from this type of rage release on a regular basis.

Don't misunderstand me - I find mass murder abhorrent and an aberration. However, in looking at the rage behind the behaviour, and with the ease of which so many people can hide in our society (many without even meaning to hide) ... I am amazed.

I know a woman who refuses to live in a neighborhood where all of the neighbors know each other. She does not want the attention. This same woman is a devout Episcopalian, but refuses to go to a small church ... she does not want the attention. She works in a large company as a nameless drudge ... she does not want the attention.

She hides from our society, and the size of our society allows her to do this quite easily.

I think of the high schools with only grades 10-12 with 1000 students per grade level. 30 teens per class. Teachers harried by unnecessary paperwork, discipline issues, more grading than they can accomplish in a 40 or even 50 hour workweek.

How easy is it for those teens to hide in plain sight? To "get by" doing what they need to do to remain under the radar ... and all the while raging that no one really notices them for who they are.

It takes a great deal of effort to reach out to just one teen who feels so slighted and as if no one listens to her or takes her seriously. It takes more effort than most of us feel we can expend.

And if that teen has a broken "pressure release valve" ....

So, what do we do? Do we quit emphasizing that everyone is special? Do we emphasize more fully that we are all unique instead of the more generic "special"? Do we mouth inane patter designed to make everyone feel good (until they realize that it's only inane patter)? Do we make an effort to reach out to all members of our community? How do we reach out to those who have decided they don't want nor need our attention? And how do we sort out those people who truly don't need our attention from those who say they don't need it ... but who desperately do need the human connections?

Guns might make it easier to harm more people in a short amount of time, but the issue is not really about the tools used to wreak havoc. The issue is what is it within us that causes a need for wreaking that kind of havoc?

How do we create the connections we need to feel less isolated and alone and more a part of something?

How do we weigh the balance of our need to be individuals ... and the good of the society around us?

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:15 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 27, 2007

The Measure of Success

A couple of things have happened here at Red Monkey over the last week. One, my recent post about Martin Anderson, whilst not garnering a lot of comments, has been getting a ton of traffic (for me) from Stumble. That same post has also aided in my being tagged a Thoughtful Blogger by Alan from The Thin Red Line.

I read over and over again in the blogosphere, that you have to pick a topic and stick to it if you want your blog to succeed. Those people generally define success in number of people subscribed to your Feedburner or how many unique hits you get per day.

Certainly, when I taught first-year writing, I told my students the same thing for their papers. Pick a topic, narrow it down into one argument. And certainly the people who treat their blog this way have a kind of coherence that Red Monkey does not.

The problem is, with a blog, we don't know how long the full writing will be. A paper of 5 pages, of 11 pages, has limits defined by the length. You can't fully explore the effects of birth order on how a person responds to the education system in five pages without redefining your goals into "I'm just giving an overview." Even in a paper of 10 pages, you might just concentrate on how middle children need a different kind of attention in school than oldest children, youngest or onlies. It takes something larger to discuss the "whole" issue.

I don't know how many pages my blog will be. It's a different beast.

I do not have a mind which stays focused on one topic for very long at a time. As a child, I rejoiced in the idea of the Renaissance man and the jack of all trades. My mother had a distinctly different take on this, believing that specialisation was the way to go and she used to say, with her disapproving voice, "Jack of all trades, master of none." And then give me that raised eyebrow look that said, "You can do better than that."

However, it was the fact that I could both teach freshman writing and design websites and act as our departmental computer consultant which landed me my teaching gig. And it was the fact that I could both be copy writer and knew web design that landed me my last job. People like the fact that they can get a "2 for 1" deal. And, while there are times that you need a specialist, the more specialized the need, the fewer jobs there are for that need.

My blog brings in people interested in a wide variety of things. Some people check in periodically for sketches. Some for photos. Some for stories. Some for commentary. Some disappointed people come looking for those damn Red Monkey jeans of which I'm so sick.

By the numbers, this is not a wildly successful blog. But it does serve my needs ... a place where I can write things and discuss what is important to me ... and know that at least some of it gets read and shared.

And since this is the third or fourth time someone has graced me with a Thinking Blogger award, I know that my blog serves the purpose for which I originally created it: making myself and others think.

That makes this a successful blog to me. I don't need more than that.

Thanks Alan!!

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:38 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 13, 2007

Serenity: Oh God, Oh God, We're All Going to Die

Martin Lee Anderson was sent to a boot camp for juvenile offenders at the age of 14. The first day there, he threw a fit at the exercises, like most 14 year olds faced with what looks to them like pointless indoctrination. He wanted to stop, he called it bullshit. Typical 14 year old rebellion. And, of course, you can't have that in a boot camp. You have to have fast discipline. So, the guards jumped the kid and "forced him" to continue the exercises. They held him down, they put him in take-down, they applied pressure points ... and I gotta say, I'm not sure how those things are forcing the boy to continue exercising ... sounds pretty much like forcing him to be still, to me. Finally, they forced him to inhale ammonia.

During this process, the boy went "unresponsive" in official-ese.

The first autopsy declared that the boy had a previously-undiagnosed blood disease which the staff couldn't have known. And that this was the cause of death. Announced five weeks after the boy's death.

Video showed the boy being kicked and punched. And ammonia capsules being shoved up his nose.

The family screamed.

A second autopsy was called for, the dead boy exhumed to be examined again, this time by the coroner of the county as well as several other forensic pathologists and a New York State Police coroner as well. The results indicated that the boy did have the "trait" of the blood disorder (meaning it was pretty much a non-issue rather than an active disease). They also noted that despite the bruising, the boy was not beaten to death.

According to the press release by the state attorney, nearly 5 months after the boy's death:

Martin Anderson's death was caused by suffocation due to actions of the guards at the boot camp. The suffocation was caused by manual occlusion of the mouth, in concert with forced inhalation of
ammonia fumes that caused spasm of the vocal cords resulting in internal blockage of the upper airway.

Governor Jeb Bush claimed he was disturbed by the findings and that he would ensure that justice was served.

Was Martin a bad kid who deserved to be beaten the first day at the camp?

According to the BBC, "The teenager had been sent to the camp for violating probation by trespassing at a school after he and his cousins were charged with stealing their grandmother's car from a church parking lot."

So, the eight various employees found themselves embroiled in a criminal suit.

Their defense? They used the procedures of the camp, designed to instill discipline. They claimed the boy was faking illness to get out of the exercises.

The response to Martin's death has been that all of the state's bootcamps are now closed. The head of the department of law enforcement stepped down.

The verdict has now come back after just 90 minutes of deliberation. Despite the fact that Governor Charlie Crist recommended the state pay $5million to the family, the jury has found the 8 defendants not guilty.

The all-white jury. Sitting in on the trial in which a 14 year old black boy was killed.

For whatever reason, I don't normally think of Florida as a part of "The South." Georgia is, of course, but for some reason, Florida is just kind of a separate entity, I suppose, in its own way like Texas is and Alaska and Hawaii.

When I look at an all white jury taking just 90 minutes to decide this case dealing with the death of a 14 year old black boy ... I have to re-think my gut reaction to not consider Florida a part of The South.

And I know better, really. I know that it doesn't matter what state we discuss. There are still numerous cases of racism around the United States, on a regular basis.

When Martin was killed, there had been ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY complaints of excessive force at the boot camp where he'd been killed.

After Martin's death, the use of ammonia capsules was banned. After Martin's death the use of violent measures such as punching and kicking the inmates of the camps was banned. Approximately four months after Martin's death, the boot camps were closed.

Was Martin Lee Anderson killed because he was a black boy?
Were the employees directly involved in his death acquitted because they were judged by a white jury?

I don't know.

I suspect these things are true. I suspect this because of my own experience. I fear that this is true and it hurts me.

Recently, a young man on BlogCatalog asked Do You Care About Racism?

And I had to respond, hell yes I care. I had to respond that I do think about this every day.

Do I care because of Martin Anderson? Yes, it's true that his story makes me care. It's true that the story of the Jena 6 makes me care.

But I also care about the issue of racism because of what I, personally, witness every day. Not in "The South." I witness it in northern Indiana. I watch as people cringe from the dark-skinned black man across the street.

I watch as people make fun of the Orthodox Jews who walk through our neighborhood on their way to shul.

I watch as people treat the latinos in town as less than human.

I watch, and I try to not stay silent. I try to NOT be the voyeur witnessing the pain of others.

And I get "that look" from my "fellow" whites. They are not happy with me, and I don't care.

For whatever reason, as a child, I knew that there was no difference between myself and "them mexicans." There was no difference between me and Jon Comb, who happened to be Jewish. There was no difference between me and Paula, the black girl who befriended me in junior high.

The only difference between "them" and "us" was circumstance. Colour did not enter into it. Other people's perceptions of us coloured who they thought we were. But it really didn't matter which of us was white, brown or black.

I mostly do not see colour, myself. I haven't seen colour since I was about seven.

Why can't everyone else? Why does it matter to ANYONE if someone is black, brown, yellow or white? What does it matter if they are Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu or Muslim?

Why must we keep sticking our noses into other peoples' private lives?

Do I care about racism?

I hurt knowing that people cannot celebrate differences but must instead rail about anyone different from themselves. So, yeah. I care. Not about the various colours of the people I know and don't know. I care that others are not colour blind. I care that people even fucking notice the difference between Jamaal and Chaim and John and Juan.

But what really haunts me?

What really haunts me this month of October ... this month of the dead ...
are the number of dead in the name of "I'm right and you're not" ... whether we're talking race or religion or just good old-fashioned us versus them.

Does this haunt you?

Posted by Red Monkey at 8:12 PM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 9, 2007

Seeing Red

Bobbie left an excellent comment yesterday pertaining to the second of the three situations I discussed in my previous post. As I attempted to answer that comment, I realized that between the comment and my reply ... was yet another post. Hence ...

I'm a psychologist by profession, and what I am about to say is from that point of view.
I have observed the kinds of 'forum wars' you describe on practically every forum I've ever been a part of (or even just read.) Usually -- not always, but usually -- they are started and sustained by people who exhibit signs of a certain kind of personality disorder -- signs that are obvious to someone trained to recognize things like that, but perhaps not by those who are not trained.
A hallmark is a very exaggerated sense of their own importance, for openers. Usually they need (and relentlessly solicit) constant attention and admiration, yet have little concern or empathy for others.
Well-meaning, well-intentioned, thoughtful people fall into their trap in forum discussions because they believe they are responding to and reasoning with a 'normal' person (I use the term loosely). In fact, the best thing to do in these instances, really, is to disengage. Don't participate. It just feeds the fires. You cannot rationally engage with this kind of person, so don't bother to try.
Didn't mean to turn this comment into a blog post, but I felt it needed to be said. Next time someone starts driving everybody nuts on a forum, you'll know what to do: Disengage.

The trick, of course, is to make myself do that and quit going back to those threads where sh-- err, that person is participating! ;) These people are usually quite skilled in at least one of two things: pounding on people's buttons ... and being everywhere at once, often ruining otherwise excellent conversations. And, naturally, irritating people enough through this behaviour to get those of us who know better ... to engage them anyway.

The sad thing to me, is while this comment does attend to the forum wars issue in which it is relatively easy to simply disengage if we practice a little self-discipline ... that doesn't address the issue in society at large. It seems that there are some people who snap who simply need to be heard ... and then there are the trolls from whom we should disengage until they can act like normal folk. (again, normal being a loosely applied term!)

What it doesn't attend, is that snap that the seemingly normal members of a group show ... usually it feels like it's out of nowhere although we all know that it's rooted in something, be it biochemical or past experience. (The third example from yesterday's post.) Some of that kind of snap is a sense of entitlement and a fear of change. In the case of my third example, the changes occurring at 9Rules (and the new changes are launching today!!!!), people had to apply ... they had to hold to a certain standard, in order to get into the organization. So, to a certain point, I can understand that belonging to 9r is something of a trophy, a prize for excellence in blogging. Not a popularity contest, so much as your blog was read and weighed and analyzed ... and found worthy. Your prize was the leaf logo that you could then place on your site.

I understand that people, myself included, thought they had done the work, gotten in, and that was that. I flitted around their community areas ... felt kind of intimidated ... and did not really join in the community. Like some others, I joined with my blog content ... not with me.

The thought of having my "prize" stripped away when the community changed, generated a moment of sadness. As in, aww, I thought I had done what I needed to do ... now the situation has changed. I can either lose my "trophy" or I can participate in yet another online community.

I chose to stay. Participation was undefined. And maybe I'd be able to blend into the community better now.

But whilst I don't particularly like change much of the time (it messes with my ADHD behaviours), I recognize that the only constant is change.

But why did some people SNAP over this? I mean, there are people in unbelievable snits of rage. Why? It's not their community if they haven't participated in it. And, considering that someone has to own the server space and pay for the bandwidth, even the community doesn't fully own the community.

In other words, I don't pay for the bandwidth or the server space. I don't pay for the programming. I don't pay for the designers. I don't own it. I can't really complain when things change there. I can be sad about it. I can try to present a case for why a change shouldn't take place.

But it ain't my place and it ain't really my decision.

What I don't get is the people who can't see that. Has the issue of entitlement, not just in the United States, but around the "Western" world gotten so entrenched that the slightest disagreements become worthy of vitriol and viruses?

And how far is the distance between that verbal snap online ... the verbal snap at work ...

... and action?

It's not just things like the shooting in Crandon, Wisconsin. It's not just the extremes. What about what happened to Mostafa Tabatabainejad, a student doing nothing violent, who was tased repeatedly whilst attempting to leave his university library? Why did those police act the way they did?

Why do we want to applaud Jodi Foster's character in The Brave One for what boils down to another snap. Vigilantism. To a certain extent, and I don't think this really spoils anything in the movie, the character engages in cold-blooded execution, murder.

Why do we make these violent and often self-righteous snaps? What about our society allows them to happen? Why are some of them "acceptable" and some are not?

I do not accept the standard easy answers. It is not caused by music or movies or video games or Dungeons and Dragons. Listening to music describing violence, watching violence in movies, playing violence in a game ... these things might be a reflection of our lives. We've seen real violence, we use a violent song to give us a kind of catharsis. A sense that we're not alone in that pain ... and a putting away of it. We take a frustration out on a video game because it is not acceptable to do such things in real life. It serves as a safe substitute.

And then there are those who become lost inside their media. Instead of using the media to release tension, to dissipate the anger ... it builds up further.

It's not the media who cause a snap. It is something within us.

What causes that snap, the "descent" into anti-social behaviour? I suppose, really, that has been my question all along.

How do we as a community of people, online and off-line, pay enough attention to each other in the right ways that no one snaps? Okay, that's more than a little utopian instead of practical, but you get this idea.

Preventing the next Unabomber, the next Columbine, the next workplace shooting does not really include ridding the world of angry or violent media.

It has to do with connections with people. It has to do with really seeing each other and holding each other accountable for our own behaviours.

But in a society so large, can there really be true accountability? If you don't want to face your consequences, can't you always keep on the move, feeling more and more disaffected and isolated until that snap is even more inevitable?

Where do we go from here?
Why is the path unclear?
When we know home is near
Understand
We'll go hand in hand
But we'll walk alone in fear

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:47 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 8, 2007

Sowing Discord, Eating Crow

It seems as though everywhere I go lately in "real life" and online, I see conflict. Not just, "gee, I disagree with you about that." I see people foaming at the mouth, veins on forehead and neck throbbing. I see epithets thrown at each other like kids shooting marbles into the circle, certain their shot will cause that clink and knock someone else out of the game ... and equally sure that they won't get knocked out ... or if they do, they were robbed, cheated, taken advantage of.

At the moment, I'm part of three online communities, to varying degrees. In one, a solely social site filled with a fair number of young people, I see roughly an explosion a week. Someone misinterprets what someone else says and then all hell breaks lose. Accusations fly. Feelings are hurt. Someone plays healer ... and all is mostly well again. Some bruised feelings all around, but things are better.

That's the best situation of the communities I've seen lately. And it's essentially young adults learning how to behave and interact as adults.

A second site revolves around writers. Here I see the "adult" version of fighting. I see people deliberately posting something to a discussion board, not because the ideas are necessarily believed, but because they will create anger. The worst possible spin ... the most emotionally loaded words. All to get a negative reaction. And when the community called one person on this behaviour, the response was simply "I don't think the community has the right to police its members. Leave that to Admin." An interesting thought.

The problem, of course, is that like in a real-life community, the Admin for an online community are far outnumbered by the community itself. It is impossible for each police department to know that none of the drivers in their jurisdiction are running red lights. It is impossible for them to know that none of the people in their jurisdiction are stealing. Instead, they act on information they are given from the community ... and from what limited observations of the whole they can make, considering that they can't be everywhere at once.

Likewise, Admin for an online community must rely on the community itself to let them know what is going on. They have to look at the Terms of Agreement ... they have to look at the tenor of the community. But they cannot read every thread, much less every comment and private message.

It was not surprising after a few weeks of kicking the ant hill, the member who insisted "they" were always correct and knew more than those with whom "they" conversed, "decided" to leave the community.

But during the course of that tenure within the community a lot of damage was done. Several people had been calling the recalcitrant member to task after witnessing "their" behaviour over a series of posts. New people only saw one thread's worth of the story, and missed reading a lot of earlier arguments. Those new people, acting in ignorance of the backstory tended to try to defend the recalcitrant member ... until they, too, read enough threads to see the pattern emerging.

Still others were simply afraid to post at all. Afraid that this "clique" who was hounding (oh, let's call this person Rosalita Conchita Consuela Gonzalez ... a fictional drag queen from my high school days ... and if enough people hound me about this fictional character, I'll tell her story which is nothing like the one I'm telling now) ... hrm. I hate it when the asides get so long as to foul the grammar of the sentence they appear in. Anyhow ...

Still others were simply afraid to post at all. Afraid that this "clique" who was hounding Rosalita, would come after them.

But there was no "clique." There were some like-minded members who were calling Rosalita to task. But, without knowing the entire story, it certainly did appear that a pack of jackals was terrorizing poor Rosalita until, despite a valiant fight, Rosalita had no other choice, but to leave.

It took some time before the community recovered, and I daresay, that in that time, some members left in fear, others in disgust. And now, as the United States begins seriously ramping up for the elections still a year away, that cycle is starting over again somewhat. Some people are looking for reaction so that they might belittle the opposing political side. Some are looking for honest discussion of the issues.

The result of the reactionaries often ends in sound bites and name-calling.

To be sure, I've actually been quite impressed that this particular community was able to maintain a few political threads without devolving into angry argument and fighting. But it seemed no sooner than someone said, "Wow, political discussion without the crap" ... the crap started up again.

The third community, like many communities around the world, was going through a time of immense change. They'd started out as one type of site ... and begin developing more and more along related lines, but lines requiring more active participation. Months of discussion among the members and the Admin happened between the participating members. Those who had been passive were left out of the conversation, not out of malice ... but because they were not participating.

After some months, the active community decided that they preferred to be a community with active participants. A new terms of agreement was emailed to the non-participatory members stating that the community had discussed this in some depth and decided that if a member felt they could not participate, then they should resign from the community -- with an emphasis on this: there was NO quota on what participating meant. Once a week, once a month? Open-ended.

This seemed more than fair to me. I would not have been surprised to discover that those of us who had not been participating were "kicked out" with an invitation to re-join should we choose to become a part of the community. The Admin's handling of the situation seemed more than fair to me.

However, as seems to be human nature, some had to screech. Disagreement I can understand. Disappointment.

But shrill "THIS ISN'T FAIR!!!!111" ??

People angrily denigrating the site and their Admin for what ultimately is a consensus from the participating membership?

What is it that causes us to snap, to lose our reason and begin degenerating into five year old kids in the sandbox? "That's MY toy, you can't play with it." "I can so." "Well, your Daddy is a dummy."

WTH?

What emotional defect do we all share to cause so many of us to falter to this childhood behaviour over what is really the stupidest of things? What out-dated piece of biological machinery is pumping out some insidious "asshole" chemical and flooding our brains until we can't reason any more?

And ...

... what is the connection between those "minor" verbal snaps ...

... and Crandon, Wisconsin?

Below is a portion of my comic book which asks some of these same questions. Talking about the extremes as in Crandon and Virginia Tech and Noida, India.
(Don't strain your eyes to read the captions ... I've re-written them for you in the lower right corner ... somewhat bigger and more clear.)

Why do we hurt each other

What does it take to "graduate" from the small and petty snaps we make as humans ... to a life of verbally baiting others so that we can belittle them and feel superior? And what does it take devolve further into the decision that hatred and destruction are good answers? That pain and suffering of others means that we are more powerful and somehow better?

Why do we seem to crave conflict and discord?

And why are some conflicts and discords and suffering more "interesting" to us than others? What keeps Madeline in the news and the Jena 6 quiet? What allows the incident with Mostafa Tabatabainejad to drop off the radar ... and keeps OJ's and Paris's and Britney's "plight" and antics in the news?

I'll end with a quote from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ... in this episode, each of the major characters has been forced to reveal some secrets that they had each preferred to stay secrets. Most of the characters were shocked and appalled at some of what had been hidden ... at surprises revealed about people they thought they knew so well. The episode is called "Once More With Feeling," and it's a spoof of broadway musicals and one of the most cleverly written pieces of American television I've ever seen. At the very end of the episode, after all the secrets are revealed ... after everyone is left standing around, reeling at what they've learned:

Where do we go from here?
Why is the path unclear?
When we know home is near
Understand
We'll go hand in hand
But we'll walk alone in fear

So is that the answer to all of this conflict and discord? That we might walk "hand in hand/ But we'll walk alone in fear"?

Why are we so scared? Why are we so scared that hurting each other can make us feel better or safer?

I wish I knew.

I wish we all did.

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:09 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 20, 2007

Stealth, Blatant, Repressed

It doesn't matter what labels we put with prejudice, be it racism, homophobia, xenophobia or hatred of the newest wave of immigrants.

We are not the colour of our skin. We are not our religion. We are not whom we sleep with. We are not our country of origin. We are not our culture.

These things shape us as our experiences shape us. But one aspect of our lives does not define us.

Today in Jena, Louisiana, civil rights protesters are marching in response to the biased way that the law is carried out in many places in the United States. They have found an egregious case-in-point in Jena where white kids are simply "pranking" and the black kids are obviously attempting murder.

Many factors both biological and experiential shape the people we become. That shaping goes on constantly and we are constantly in a state of flux and change. It is up to each of us to challenge ourselves to look beyond the obvious and investigate not only our own motives and behaviours, but others' motives and behaviours as well. Not to condone bad behaviour, but to understand the place from which it comes and to look at why. After all, theft is wrong ... but theft to feed yourself when you have no other options? It's an old chestnut of an example, but one that still gives many of us pause.

When what you know is one set of rules for the blue-eyed kids ... and another set of rules for the brown-eyed kids ... when experience has taught you that you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't ...

Take a look at this again. (It'll open in a new window/tab depending on your settings.)

Look at these people gathered around and smiling.

Is that any better than treating some people to one set of standards ... and "those people" to another set of standards? Aren't we learning that zero tolerance policies are NOT fair because there are usually extenuating circumstances which mitigate or worsen a situation?

I'll repeat the end of my last post, because I think it bears repeating. If you're not familiar with the Jena situation, please read Eating Crow.

I'm not saying that the boys don't deserve some repercussions. But when I say that, I mean every single one of them. I mean the boys who put up the nooses. I mean the kids who started fights in the halls. I mean the children who called each other names. I mean the school board who eased the punishment of the noose-boys. I mean the people who burned down the school.
I mean the people who look at each other warily from across the street. Is that white dude going to start something? Is that black girl going to start screaming at me?
I mean the white dude who decided to teach them uppity black boys a lesson at the party. I mean the boy who had to brandish his shotgun.
I mean all of us. These are the repercussions for our attitudes, for our distrust in those who seem different from us, for our certainty that "we" are good and "they" are wrong, whatever our definitions of we, they, good and wrong.
And there's a march scheduled now for the unfair way the justice system is choosing to pursue the problems in Jena.
It's a start. Trying to keep these issues at the forefront of people's minds. It reminds us not to be complacent. It reminds us to question our motives, not endlessly navel-gazing, but honestly attempting to look at what we do ... and what results those actions have.
Stealth racism. Jim Crow laws. Lynchings. Colored water fountains. Separate but equal.
Racial profiling. Fear of the different.
Fear.
I am chilled.


Posted by Red Monkey at 10:24 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 12, 2007

Eating Crow

Today we're not so prejudiced that we have water fountains labeled White and Colored. We allow "them" to sit at the lunch counter with "us." And still, it seems, "they" have the gall to complain.

Until you read about Jena, Louisiana, and the "white tree."

Now it's being called stealth racism because instead of being codified in Jim Crow laws, it's being played out "unofficially" ... it's not written down ... therefore it doesn't happen.

The problem with this theory often used by those trying to cover up their racist views is that it is written down. And, sadly, one of the best examples is from my own home state, although I'm told it's prevalent throughout the States.

The written record is in our legal system, but unlike the Jim Crow laws, these are "codified" in the way that we choose to pursue justice, who we sentence, and what sentence they receive. The bulk of crimes "deserving" the death penalty are sentences handed to black men. (Look at the race of those executed in Texas since the re-instatement of the death penalty.) Black violence to white = harsher punishment.

Another example? Look more closely at the Jena, Louisiana, issues. A black student "jokingly" asked if he could sit under the tree with the white students. You see, all of the white kids sat under the big tree, whilst the black kids sat on the bleachers. They weren't labeled White Tree and Black Bleachers. There was no law that said that. It was simply a case of everyone sticking to their own.

Except the tree was known around town as the white tree, when, in fact, the tree, like most trees, was brown. Now why could it be called the white tree? The principal told the kid he could sit wherever he liked ... but the next morning, 3 nooses were found hanging from the tree.

A schoolyard prank. It didn't mean anything.

Unless you've seen this. Unless you've lived it. Heard relatives telling the "story." And then, you can't help but be chilled by the threat. Can you take that risk? Can you really take that risk that it was just a joke?

The school recommended expulsion for the "pranksters" but the school board over-ruled them and decided a simple in-school suspension was plenty of punishment. No need to escalate things.

Except, of course, that that's exactly what happened. Things escalated as they have a tendency to do. Fights breaking out along racial lines, seeming to culminate with the burning of the main academic building of the school and the blaming of "Them" by "Us," with the definitions changing depending on which group a person was in.

But what has appeared to be a kind of proverbial "last straw" is the arrest of the so-called Jena Six.

One account includes one of the Jena Six attempting to go to a party and being turned away. And then, getting into a fight over the issue. The white man who instigated the violence was eventually charged with simple battery. The next day a white student argued with the black boys and ran to his pick-up truck for his pistol-grip shotgun. Reportedly Robert Bailey took the gun from the white boy and refused to give it back. (Personal aside ... given the situation, I can't say I'd want a pissed off white boy to have his damn shotgun back either!) Bailey was charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white boy? Not charged. Had he not brandished the firearm to start with ... but that seems to be beside the point.

The real culmination of this series of events came a few days later at school. Apparently one of the white boys, bragged how the black Bailey had been beaten up by a white man. Later that day, Justin Barker (the white boy) was jumped by the so-called Jena Six (including Robert Bailey). They did beat the crap out of Justin. He was knocked unconscious either by hitting the concrete or by being punched in the head ... but despite a short hospital observation (2 hours), he was released and went to the school's Ring Ceremony that evening.

The six boys were arrested originally for aggravated assault, which was later changed to attempted second degree and conspiracy to murder, not the simple assault/battery that it was. Later, one of the boys had his charge "reduced" to aggravated second degree battery. Sounds better right? That's a charge that requires the use of a "deadly weapon." Okay, so what'd the boy use? A pipe? A big length of thick branch?

His sneakers were dubbed deadly weapons.

The jury was all white.

The court-appointed attorney did not call a single witness to the stand.

It sounds like the days of Jim Crow, and I know every single blogger who has written about this has used the same phrase ... but yanno? It freaking fits ... and that terrifies me.

I'm not saying that the boys don't deserve some repercussions. But when I say that, I mean every single one of them. I mean the boys who put up the nooses. I mean the kids who started fights in the halls. I mean the children who called each other names. I mean the school board who eased the punishment of the noose-boys. I mean the people who burned down the school.

I mean the people who look at each other warily from across the street. Is that white dude going to start something?
Is that black girl going to start screaming at me?

I mean the white dude who decided to teach them uppity black boys a lesson at the party. I mean the boy who had to brandish his shotgun.

I mean all of us. These are the repercussions for our attitudes, for our distrust in those who seem different from us, for our certainty that "we" are good and "they" are wrong, whatever our definitions of we, they, good and wrong.

And there's a march scheduled now for the unfair way the justice system is choosing to pursue the problems in Jena.

It's a start. Trying to keep these issues at the forefront of people's minds. It reminds us not to be complacent. It reminds us to question our motives, not endlessly navel-gazing, but honestly attempting to look at what we do ... and what results those actions have.

Stealth racism. Jim Crow laws. Lynchings. Colored water fountains. Separate but equal.

Racial profiling. Fear of the different.

Fear.

I am chilled.


Posted by Red Monkey at 1:18 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 11, 2007

The Multi-Coloured Coat

I grew up in Texas in the 70s and 80s. I was in first grade during the time period that the movie Dazed and Confused covers. It was the age of Free to Be You and Me and, so far as a little kid could tell, the battle for civil rights was over. Blacks (no longer referred to as "them coloreds") were equal in the eyes of anyone. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a martyred hero who had, through that martyrdom, won.

Of course, I was completely wrong about much of that, but I thought that the time for marching not just for civil rights, but marching against hatred and prejudice, was over.

I was, of course, terribly naive. But what seven year old isn't? By the time I was 13, I realized that I had only been to school with one black child. And I began putting more details together. My mother locked her car doors if a black man was on a street corner. Regardless of what he was wearing/looked like. My father dropped the N-word in regard to Differen' Strokes (and yet he loved Sanford and Son). I still strongly suspect that he did at least a brief stint in the Klan. I was removed from one junior high school and placed in another ... purportedly because the second school had a higher level math class that I could take for only one semester out of the three I had left. In retrospect, this move feels much like my change of schools for second grade ... in junior high, I was fast becoming best friends with Paula. A black girl. In second grade, my teacher was black. And, worse, Austin was preparing to begin busing.

In both cases, my mother thought she was protecting me. She was in the very difficult position of having tried, by her own admission, to raise her children without prejudice ... and yet being unable to let go of those old habits herself. In talking to her about this later, she admitted that she was afraid that whatever the other results of busing, she just knew that if some of the kids (or even the adults) got into an argument, a fight ... that I would be right there in the thick of it, attempting to create peace. And probably getting hurt. Reflecting on who I was back then, I think she was probably correct. It wouldn't have mattered to me who had started it nor even, really, what it was about. I was outspoken about what I felt was right. If a white person picked on a black; or a black person picked on a white, I would have been defending the picked on and trying to make peace.

Even in the case of the junior high move, she had pointed out that some of the kids at the school might call me an N-lover for being friends with Paula. I snorted and said, "So? I don't care what people like that think." This time, she was even more wrong for moving me as there really wasn't that kind of racial tension in the school. I'm not saying that everything was always perfect between the white kids and the black kids ... but simply being friends with someone from the "opposite camp" was not really going to fuss anyone.

And then I began to open my eyes to the wider community, not just the small one that I inhabited. I saw incidences of prejudice in Texas, in the South. I fussed to myself. Why were people not doing something about this. I had announced in junior high that if there were civil rights marches, I would be there. Oh how that must have just terrified my mother.

I was discussing the issue of prejudice and violence in the south and in the north with someone last night and I said that I had seen more and worse events here in the North than I had ever seen in Texas. That's personally seen, not just read newspaper stories of. Although, come to think of it, I think I've seen more of that here in Indiana than I did in Texas as well.

Much of it here has revolved around how so much of the black community has been pushed into the worst areas of town. The gangs run rampant on that side of town. Here, two towns essentially run together and it can be very difficult to tell where South Bend ends and Mishawaka begins. And I can't count the number of times I have heard someone from Mishawaka say they could never live in South Bend ... because of the gangs ... because of the "black troubles."

I've observed black people being waited on last. I about got my head bit off for telling my waitress someone else was there first. And I got the same kind of service that the black family got for my trouble. A dear friend in grad school told how she and her husband were thrown out of Sears - for trying to get the repair center to honour their warranty. After less than 2 weeks, her new vacuum cleaner had broken. She took it in. Her husband waited, in the manner of most people ready to be done with a chore and off to the more interesting things of the day, slouched against a wall, waiting for her to be done.

The clerk told her nothing could be done. She produced receipt. She produced warranty. The clerk merely produced more anger. Finally, the clerk called security. Not to deal with my friend, who was a seriously PISSED off ex-drill sergeant by this point. No, to escort her husband out of the building and to ban him from Sears. For intimidating the clerk. You know, by freaking standing there.

There was the piling on of cops and pepperspray for the one black guy who tried to lift a pack of cigarettes. (Turns out he stole nothing. It was a mistake ....)

And my God, but the Klan is active here ... they terrify me and infuriate me all at once. My friends have tried on more than one occasion to make sure I am otherwise occupied when there's a rally in the area. (If for no other reason than they're tired of hearing me rant.)

So, today I know that my childhood belief that Martin Luther King, Jr. had won, is indeed not true. Some civil rights are more protected than they once were. But you can't legislate attitudes, and legally protecting things that simply should be ... creates equal and opposite pushes. Sometimes I think for every person like me who arises from that time period, we have ten who feel they were wronged by the legislation.

There are so very many ways that people can be different. And we as a society seem hell-bent on repeating the past. "The problem with the Irish immigrant is they are lazy, heathen, fighting is in their very physical make-up. They're little better than animals." Then it's the Italians. The Jews. The blacks. Gypsies. Them Mexicans. The queers are out to give us all AIDS. The Irish Travelers all abuse their kids. A perpetual game of Them vs. Us with constantly changing definitions of the tribes.

And God forbid you compare the plight of one group to another. The fight for civil rights by the queers is just nothing like the fight for black equality.

And I wonder whatever happened with Mostafa Tabatabainejad, the student at UCLA who was tased repeatedly for being different. (Okay, for not showing his ID the instant someone asked him for it.)

Of course, today we're not so blatant as we were "back then," right? We don't see White and Colored water fountains now.

(continued tomorrow)

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:49 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 6, 2007

Underdog, Outsider, Autist - The Speed of Dark

My mother used to tell me that I only rooted for the underdog. The first time I heard her say that, I thought she meant the cartoon ... and I did very much adore Underdog. It wasn't exactly true, what she said, but at five, six, even eight, I really didn't have the words to explain what the difference was.

It was true if I saw someone being picked on, I would go try to help that person. Go tell a teacher, intervene myself if I thought I could make a difference, go to the person in pain afterward and try to lend a hand, or an ear, or a shoulder.

I had occasion yesterday to really examine how I think, what processes my brain goes through to arrive at the conclusions it does. Part of this is because I was re-reading The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. It's a book about Lou Arrendale, a man in the near-future who happens to have what we would call high-functioning autism, maybe even Aspberger's.

It was partially due to re-reading this book that I remembered Mom's comment, complaint, really, that I always cheered for the underdog. Her fear at the time was that I would get hurt doing that one day. In Texas, in the 70s during the time of busing, she may very well have been right. I probably would have.

But it wasn't so much that I was rooting for the underdog as it was how strongly I identified with the outsider. These are not necessarily the same group. My favourite books all underscored this:
The Outsiders ... S.E. Hinton (that's just a gimme)
the Bagthorpe Saga ... Helen Cresswell
Ender's Game ... Orson Scott Card
Chaim Potok's books, and here's where I really began to understand the depth to which I identified with the outsider. In The Chosen, the narrator is Reuven Malter. He is an outsider peering into a form of orthodox Judaism he has not seen before. But the true outsider of the story is Danny, the Hasidic rebbe's son who would prefer to study psychology and not become the next rebbe. And while I enjoyed the two books which dealt with Danny and Reuven, they always bothered me deeply as well. Because I wanted Danny to be the narrator. I wanted the true outsider to narrate the books. And I suppose that this is one reason I prefer My Name Is Asher Lev to most of Potok's other books.

And then, of course, there's Moon's The Speed of Dark itself. Lou is an outsider to "normal" society, but Moon crafted the book so that we are also an outsider to Lou's society ... and yet inside it all at the same time. It's an incredible crafting of a world for any author to be able to do that to the extent that Moon does.

What is particularly fascinating to me about this book is it lays bare the way we categorize people without thinking of the complexities and truth of those categorizations. I don't mean categorizing as "normal" or "autistic" but something even more detailed such as: austists do not recognize social cues. Autists recognize patterns.

And what all of this reminds me of is something I began saying in elementary school: we are all on a continuum, or, more accurately, a series of continuums. Our lives and beings seem like one huge mixer board of slides and the position of each slide on its little scale is what makes one person different from another.

Perhaps my slider for patterns is high, but not so high as someone with certain levels of autism. My slider for certain types of social cues, like how to tell if someone is chatting and being nice, or is actually flirting, is very low.

Thinking about this, I wish that we could identify all the sliders available on the human mixer board rather than all the genes in the human genome. The problem with this, of course, is that the human mixer board is not something we can see so readily as the genome. And, perhaps, mapping the genome will help us define the mixer board. Theories of multiple intelligence fit right into this mixer board concept of humanity. As does the kinsey scale, and, I think the Meyers Briggs personality scales.

And what happens when some sliders are turned all the way up and others all the way down? Then you have severe disorders. I think that's where you see severe autism or people like Mother Teresa or sociopaths. The bulk of us live in variations along the mid-range. The extraordinary people are "dialed up."

The next set of questions, at least for me, is what causes the sliders to move? I'm sure some of it is "preset" within a certain range at birth. I feel certain that experience can move the sliders, some sliders are probably more prone to movement than others. Accident, trauma, these can move the sliders in unpredictable ways and to extremes that they otherwise could not reach based on "normal" nature/nurture parameters.

I come to all of this because the more often I read about autism, the more I can see, not the differences that mark an autist, but the similarities.

Which all comes down to this: I wonder if any work has been done on the difference between birth-autism and trauma-autism. Because I see a LOT of similarities between people who have undergone certain kinds of extreme traumas, particularly as children, and people labeled autistic at birth. (Well, okay, so they're not often labeled autistic at birth, but I use that to say there are people who are apparently autistic from birth and some who seem to acquire some aspects of autism from trauma.) Please note that I am not saying parents or trauma causes autism. Autism is a disease or disorder. But I do wonder if there are people with certain slider settings who can undergo early traumas causing new slider settings which are similar to those people with autism.

For example, there are a few cases of children raised in total silence and not taught to speak. When discovered, they share a lot of characteristics with some "dialed up" autistics. The difference is that some of these children who were abused in this way can eventually change their slider settings into something closer to the mid-range that we call "normal." Because the autist has his or her parameters set more by nature than by any lack of nurture, there is only so much movement possible on the slider. (Without medical intervention, I mean.)

The question, then, for the trauma-austist is how to identify that some sliders are out of whack with the "norm" and then how to learn to move those sliders.

The question for the birth-autist is: can we learn anything from the trauma-autist that will apply to moving the birth-autist's sliders as well?

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:41 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 21, 2007

Sad

Local paper ... this is just sad.

I hate seeing a business 55 years old ... SO much history ... I hate seeing them go under. It's just depressing. comments/sad.gif

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:34 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 14, 2007

Stability

Ain't no such thing.

Despite the fact that I certainly crave a certain amount of stability, the world is, as always, an uncertain place. When I was first hired at ... hmmm ... let's call them ProductsOnline, the president of the company was very honest and upfront with me. ProductsOnline was having some issues. They were attempting to turn around the company, but they thought they had a good handle on it. That was in November of 2004. I started there as copywriter, but the president was influenced and intrigued by my web design skills as well. He was hoping to bring several design elements in-house and he thought my combo of writing and "skillz of an artist" (Strongbad quote ... Dragon/Trodgor email) would help the company.

Fast forward to a few months ago. I'm now definitely still the go-to person for words, but my primary job is far more design oriented. I've created banners for the retail store, signage, all sorts of design projects. I'm not the lead designer, but I'm darn happy to be designing. The company begins a re-structure. The business plan changes. The creative staff survive, but a lot of people don't. The executives want to make darn sure that the creative staff stays and stays happy. Two of the three of us do.

Scan forward to this past week.

The unexpected.

I have gotten new assignments in the past week. I'm working on them.

Office doors open and close. They're not usually closed, but it's not too unusual to have a closed-door meeting from time to time.

The company is to be sold. Or something. Paring down the staff again.

Not going forward with so many of the programs I've worked on since I was hired.

Nearly the entire staff is gone now.

Including the creative team. Including the guy who's been there since ProductOnline's inception.

Hence ... shock.

I have a nice "severance" package. It's called something else, but that's what it boils down to. Actually, it's more than "nice" ... but at moments like this ... it's hard to think in those terms.

Instead I think of the wretchedness I feel for my friends who are now out of work. Almost all of my friends at work have kids.

Lack of stability. No certainty in this world except change.

One door closes and another opens.

Still. It takes a moment to stare at that closed door which was once your shining open door of potential and opportunity ... it takes a moment to penetrate ... that door is closed now.

I don't know if being out of work and scrambling for a new job will make me quieter here ... or give me too much time to ruminate and share.

Life goes by pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Guess I'll do some looking around. emoticons/smile.gif

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:28 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 10, 2007

Shock

So ... anyone looking to hire a full-time graphic designer?

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:04 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 22, 2007

Central Line Thru Intubation?

UPDATE: Never mind. The person who told me that had gotten garbled info from a nurse. Is everyone okay? Sort of. Pulmonary embolism ... friend back home in Texas ... crappy ass "long term care facility" ... had to call a friend and tell them to call the nurses when she was having troubles. I hate idiots.

Anyone know anything about WHY the HELL you'd stick a central line down someone's intubated throat?

(No, not me. Duh, I'm typing this now. ... And, no, not my partner.)

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:33 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 17, 2007

Back Then

Well, all through the blogosphere I'm sure there are tons of posts about how great Dads are. This isn't exactly one of those posts.
Father's Day is a really hard time for me. I want to be supportive of all of the excellent fathers out there. And there are a lot of them. But this time of year people keep talking about giving thanks to their fathers and I can't help but feel left out. I've had people tell me how even if my Dad could be a jerk, that I should be thankful for all he did for me. I've had people tell me that I should send him a card for father's day. Or call him.
But the fact of the matter is, it's just hard for me to even talk about my dad. You see, I completely idolized him as a little kid. He did so many cool things. He worked with computers (at a time when they used punchcards and took up a huge room) and I thought that was cool. He had the coolest board games (like his Parcheesi game). He had a train set and built cool little buildings and painted toy trucks and such. We watched sci-fi movies, planet of the apes movies, voyage to the bottom of the sea and, of course, he took me to see a little movie called Star Wars.
But, by the time I was about 6 or 7 he went missing in action even though he still lived in the same house with us.

I wrote that in 2005, and it's still very much true. But despite the missing dad, the abusive dad ... it's getting easier ... finally ... to remember playing soccer in the backyard whilst he was drunk ... and him acting more like a gleeful little boy than the tyrant he'd mostly become by then. That was a good afternoon for us and one that I cherish. I remember the glee with which he and I opened the train set that grandma had given to both of us. The fascination I had for watching him (I wasn't allowed to touch it) as he painted figures, painted the trains, built and painted and placed the buildings. The utter joy with which we would watch Logan's Run and the rest of our shows. Even the looks he and I would exchange when my mom would do something particularly "girly" ... we'd share that "ugh, girls!" look. I think of all the things that Dad and I loved and how much alike we could be. He got me my first model airplane, an F-15. And then he taught me the difference between the look of the F-16 and the 15. I was about four or five at the time and I was fascinated by the double tail fin.

Another year.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:34 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 3, 2007

Frustration

I hate those days when I am filled with both lethargy and restlessness. When I find it difficult to go do the things I should do ... and yet, don't have the energy to pick up my pencils and Copic markers and draw either.

I am simply happy that my other half is home ... seems to be well.

I want to know when the exhaustion and struggles give way to more than two breaths of rest and relaxation.

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:02 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 30, 2007

Six of One

Things That Are Good:
The other half's surgery is done and she came thru with flying colours. Things were as expected.
The house is blessedly quiet.
I will have some help getting said quiet house cleaned up tomorrow ... which means it won't be so quiet, but that's okay.
My buddy Martha sat with me until we heard how the other half's surgery had gone.

Things That Are Not So Good:
Four to five hours of sleep a night for several nights destroys my gastrointestinal system. Which was already not doing well this past week.
The other half "woke up" from the surgery screaming ... apparently the IV popped out just as they were preparing to inject the pain meds and it took them a while to quiet her down.
The 2.5 hour surgery that was to begin at 7:30 didn't start until closer to 8. 9 rolled around, no word from the OR. 10 rolled around. Nothing. Okay ... 2.5 hours ... should hear between 10 and 10:30.
10:30 ... 10:45 ... 11:00 ... I think it was at least 11:15 before I heard anything and I was seriously starting to FREAK OUT.

Goods definitely outweigh the bads ... and I'll just be glad when she's all recovered and we can completely put this behind us. I honestly knew that I was nervous ... but I had no idea how tense I'd gotten. I just kept repeating, it's a routine procedure. Sheesh.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:08 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 28, 2007

Nervous

So ... tomorrow my other half goes in for a completely routine surgery. We know what the issue is ... it's not serious in terms of life threatening or anything ... but definitely a required surgery. We've been hoping for the surgery for quite a while ... and yet ... now that it's impending ... I'm finally nervous.

I don't tell her that, of course. I want to portray a nice, soothing confidence so that she'll go into this in the right frame of mind. And, from her reactions, I'm certain that I'm succeeding.

So I'll just write it here, knowing she very rarely reads the blog:

I am nervous.

It's easier to go through something myself, than to watch, ultimately helplessly, as someone I love dearly is in pain and going through surgery. I've pooh-poohed the six months of chemo that I went through in 1999 and 2000. I've shrugged off the two week-long ESHAP sessions which were done to prepare me for a bone marrow transplant. I've gloated that my bone marrow transplant was, in fact, one of the easiest and most "boring" transplants Indiana Med Center had ever seen. (Or was that University Hospital ... I dunno ... was the same one Lance Armstrong got his cancer taken care of at. ... Good gods ... two dangling prepositions ... ACK! the English teacher in me is screaming right now.)

I have spent so much of my life throwing myself into the line of fire in order that someone else wouldn't have to feel the pain, that I'm completely unprepared for how to be when I can't take the pain onto myself.

On top of this immediate issue is the fact that my little sister has one of those annoying health "non-issues" right now ... that is, the medical community seems to think it's not an issue, but all of us regular-joes kinda look at it like, excuse me, WTF?

Just a little stressed.

And this is compounded by the fact that I now have to find a new general practitioner doctor of my own. The one I've been to for years is not on my new insurance. And the one that I just started seeing and absolutely ADORE ... apparently freaking abandoned her practice quite recently. No notice. I went to get my Effexor refilled ... pharmacy never got the 'scrip ready. I finally went in ... they can't get a hold of the doctor. I call the office ... "Oh, she's not here anymore." EXCUSE ME????? "I think she went to the VA hospital."

No forwarding number, I can't find the number in our phone book and now I'm off the meds that make ya sick when you go off them cold turkey. No wonder I've had stomach issues the last week or two.

So ...
anyway ....

Surgery prep junk is today starting at 11 a.m.
Sadly, no bbq for my partner today ... she can't have more than a light lunch at 11 (and believe me, light lunch according to the hospital ain't much) ... and then just liquids from noon on. Then off to hospital by 5:30 tomorrow morning ... surgery at 7:30. Then there's a minimum of 2-5 days in hospital.

It's gonna be a loooooooooooooooooooong week.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:19 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 19, 2007

Mummy

Imagine this ... you go to a real estate auction in Spain. There's this great little property, seaside, and you're thinking, how awesome would this be? So you bid. Much to your surprise you win. Turns out the person who owned it before didn't keep up with the payments and kind of faded out of the picture back in 2001 ... yep, six years ago. This being an auction and all, you didn't get a chance to go through the house, but hey, for what you paid, this is a great deal.

Now ... you have the keys ... you're going to see your new property for the first time. Open the door, the place is great. Walk into the living room.

And you're greeted by the previous owner.

Who's apparently been sitting DEAD on the couch for six years.

She's a mummy ... no wonder she couldn't keep up with the payments. Apparently the salt air really "cured" what ailed her.

The story is shocking enough if you've just taken possession of the house and met the previous owner this way ... but think about it deeper for a moment ... how truly sad is this story?

She was dead for SIX years and no one noticed. Her estranged husband didn't file a missing persons report. Neither did her kids. What kind of a life had she led that brought her to such a turn of events that the only one who noticed her absence was the mortgage company? And apparently, really, they only noticed the absence of payment.

I think about the people I know online and offline. I think about the people who've slipped away, whom I've missed. I've tried to connect with some of them and I've always been delighted when I have. But I wonder and worry about the others ... that's just a part of who I am, I guess.

Who will fill out your missing persons report?

Your bank? Your credit card companies? your spouse? friends? kids?


Posted by Red Monkey at 5:26 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 4, 2007

Sometimes, People Suck

I hardly know what to say ... there are simply days when I am frustrated by humanity ... by circumstance ... by life in general.

Suffice it to say that I have been planning on adopting since I was ... ooooohhhhh, about seven years old. People kept telling me, when you get older, you'll change your mind. They were wrong. I never did.

I'm 38 now. I'm beginning to think that my dream of adopting a pair of siblings ... roughly 2 and 4 or 5 ... is not going to happen. I'll be nearing 60 when a 2 year old graduates high school ... and I've not only had cancer ... I had to have a bone marrow transplant ... who knows what that has done to my life expectancy ... perhaps nothing ... perhaps shaved 10 or more years off. I don't know.

But there's this kid I know. He's a great guy. Smart as hell. Hurting, I think. And he reminds me a hell of a lot of me at that age. He's no angel, and I have no delusions about that. But I want to help.

Hopefully, starting next week, I'll get that chance.

But for now ... for now, I'm a bit mad at the world. For all of the kids who've been forced into situations which are less than ideal. For all of the kids who are hurting. For all of us who were once hurting kids ... and are now grown.

For the survivors who went through the unthinkable and still survived.

A friend IM'd me today ... and as we were talking, she responded to my "It's not fair" with this:
"A fair is a place with rides and cotton candy and corn dogs."

True.

But dammit, I hate that things can be so incredibly unfair to so many.

There's no point to this post. Sorry to subject you to it ... just something I had to ramble publicly about, I suppose.

Meanwhile, keep me and my buddy, "Jeff," in your thoughts. He needs things to be a little more fair than they have been. I'd like to see him off the insane ride and on something more fun. I'd like to see him get some of the cotton candy and corn dogs and even some of the prizes he wants from the games that always seem so rigged. He deserves a little fun. And respect.

And some peace.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:01 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

April 19, 2007

"Put 'em Up Against The Wall"

Once upon a time ... back in the mid to late 80s ... long, long ago ... a small group of misfits decided to eat lunch in a favourite teacher's classroom instead of leaving campus for lunch ... or sitting in the school cafeteria. Bright students, all, intellectually curious, we were nonetheless misfits. We soon discovered that the back "wall" of the classroom was actually a chalkboard. Being silly, we began writing the lyrics to the theme from Gilligan's Island on the back wall one day, just trying to see if we could remember it all.

Then it was lyrics to various songs from Pink Floyd's The Wall.

Soon thereafter, the sideboards were taken up with our silly and convoluted plans for world domination.

Ed, sometimes Brian, myself, Dan, Ben ... a few others who appeared from time to time.

We were being silly and we all knew it. Most of the guys played tabletop war games and knew their history backwards and forwards. It was fun to both discuss silly strategies and learn history all at the same time. But more often than not, when Doug appeared with us at lunch, we stopped the games.

Doug was simply too serious about his plans for world domination. I don't know that his intensity scared anyone in the group, exactly, but he made us all uncomfortable.

Doug was one of those overly brilliant kids whose brain had simply developed far faster than both his moral compass and his common sense. And let's not talk about his social skills. He had some, but he thought social skills were for lesser mortals than he.

We went to a high school where one kid drove a Lambroghini, another regularly drove his dad's Alfa Romeo ... and, not being a big car person, I've forgotten the third big name car that sometimes graced our parking lots. They took spring break at Padre Island or Florida ... Christmas at Breckenridge and Taos.

In short ... I went to school with the same kinds of kids as Dylan Harris, Eric Kleibold ... and apparently Cho Seung-Hui.

There is no reason ... there is no excuse ... for killing 33 people.

Our little lunchtime group was brilliant ... we were misfits ... most of us were angry ... most of us felt powerless.

Nonetheless, we managed to get through high school relatively unscathed.

The day that I heard about Columbine ... I thought to myself, my god, that could have been us. I seem to remember one discussion ... a day that Doug was there ... probably the day we stopped playing the silly world domination game with him in the room ... when we talked about how to get rid of the bullies and popular kids in our school. I can remember exchanging a look with Ed and Dan. This wasn't a joke any more. Ben was a bit too intense. Doug had altogether too much of a plan set up.

Had any either of them had access to real firepower ... or that one last event to cause them to snap ... "Columbine" could have happened in Texas instead of Colorado ... and at least 10 years earlier than it did occur.

There is no reason ... there is no excuse ... for killing 33 people.

Doug had two humbling experiences his senior year, after discovering that he'd be going to Princeton. I like to think that the one in which I was involved taught him something of humanity and consequences and perhaps helped to kickstart his moral compass. The other, I think, simply taught him some humility.

First, Doug was angry both with my best friend ... and with me. I can't remember why he was ticked off at Drew, but he decided that the best way to get back at him ... was to first take out all of Drew's support network. That is, he was going to make sure that none of Drew's friends were in a position to help him when Doug finally struck out at Drew.

Because I think he felt humiliated by me (completely by accident), I think that's why he chose me as his first victim.

In my first year of college, I was still living at home, by command of the parental units. Over Thanksgiving, I attended a little bash just a few blocks down from my house. It was only the second time I'd had alcohol and I got a bit more than I should have. Apparently, Doug thought that I "liked" him ... and he tried to kiss me ... being completely drunk ... I didn't realize what he was doing until his tongue was in my mouth. I got him to stop, tried not to hurt his feelings ... and then went home. I felt bad about it, but I didn't think too much of it.

Drew was talking with Doug a few days later and told him of course I'd tried to stop him ... didn't Doug know I was gay??

So ... ready to take Drew down, Doug called my house and told my mother that I was gay. The end result of that mess was that my parents divorced and I was told to "change or get out." I got out.

But I quickly figured out who the anonymous tipster had been and went up to the high school to confront Doug and simply ask him why he had done that. I was going to do it privately, but when I got to the school, the teacher I'd had for English the year before told me to come on in to the classroom. Somewhat reluctantly, I wound up asking him why he'd told my mom I was gay in front of his whole English class. He couldn't meet my eyes. Just stared at his desk and mumbled it wasn't him.

I assumed that the class wouldn't really take his side or mine ... being gay was not "cool" in 1988, as the AIDS epidemic was in full swing and being in Texas and all. I found out later that most of the class gave him the silent treatment for the rest of the year.

What was interesting was that it did seem to penetrate Doug's brain that I wasn't there for revenge. I wanted an answer ... I just wanted to know why he'd seen fit to try to ruin my life.

(What was his second event? In short, he was making a kitchen-chemistry bomb. It didn't go off like it was supposed to. So he picked it up, and, cocky as always, shook it. Apparently it blew up in his face and while it didn't seriously hurt him, it did do some damage to both his face and his cocky attitude.)

There is no reason ... there is no excuse ... for killing 33 people.

Cho Seung-Hui claimed that he was driven into a corner. That it was "our" fault that he had already killed two and was about to kill more. Obviously, if Cho was disturbed. At this point, many people directly affected by his actions hate him right now. Many people not directly affected also hate him.

From the garbled and rambling document that he mailed out he railed against the rich who "crucified him."

There is no reason ... there is no excuse ... for killing 33 people.

What I fear right now is not another copycat. It's not another school shooting. It's that we will continue to ignore the lessons we should be learning from all of these people who snap.

From all of these people who feel that they are powerless and so seek to grasp some semblance of power by blindly rampaging against those they feel oppress them.

I saw an old-ish movie a few weeks ago. The Player, with Tim Robbins. It's all about this hot-shot producer who treats people like crap ... disposable ... objects to manipulate. One of the writers that he has jerked around decides to get revenge ... calls him ... sends him death threats ... on and on. The producer begins to behave a bit better. Trying to make up to everyone in hopes that he'll make up to the guy who's harassing him. Whilst talking to a writer that he thinks is the one harassing him, he snaps ... drowns the guy.

At the end of the movie, the producer has discovered that he's killed the wrong guy ... the writer harassing him gets his movie made after all ... and the producer goes right back to being a total asshole.

There is no reason ... there is no excuse ... for killing 33 people.

Have we done the same thing? I know that I see these patterns of behaviours going back long before Columbine.

I see it in the wars we wage against each other, be it nation against nation ... or neighbor against neighbor. And when the inevitable tragedies come to light ... we cry and we mourn and we rail against the unfairness of it all.

But do we change?

Charles, Eric, Dylan, Cho ... there is no reason, no excuse for what they've done. I do not pardon them for their actions.

Instead, I fear for us all. For those moments when we're tired and cranky and fed up ... and we snap at the wrong person who then goes out and rampages in some way shape or form. Maybe they just get drunk and then drive. Maybe they internalize some unthought criticism and spiral for years before taking some action.

Our words and actions toward other people ... are they kind? are they thought-full? are they both compassionate and true?

Or, completely without meaning to, are we somehow helping to shape the next tragedy?

There is no reason ... there is no excuse ... for killing people.

I discovered through some friends from high school, that a boy I dated my junior year remembered things completely differently from me. He attempted to turn our high school dating into a recreation of his favourite TV show, Moonlighting. The problem, of course, was that he was no Bruce Willis, and I was certainly no Cybill Shepherd. And, to be honest, attempting to be funny and amusing ... and ultimately, shallow ... 24/7, was far too draining for me.

I was surprised at how bitter he was about it ... twenty years after the fact. I had thought we'd parted on good terms. At least, that we had made some peace about it.

How do our actions affect others? We can't always know and we can't always be completely responsible for speaking one wrong word which affects another's mind in unexpected ways ... any more than we can live in daily fear of planes crashing into our buildings.

But we can strive to be full of thought in our dealings with others. We can attempt compassion and understanding.

And then we can pray to whatever higher powers there might be ... that it's enough.

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:15 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 21, 2007

The Bicycle Bell

Supposedly I'm good with words. People tell me that all the time. (Well, maybe not ALL the time, but a lot of the time they do ... particularly when they don't wanna write something and they think they can pawn it off on me.) I've had this ... well, gift, I guess ... since I was a little bitty kid. In fact, at the age of four, my mother was shopping around in Carmel, Indiana, where we'd just moved, looking for the best nursery school for me. I'd been pestering her with "When do I start school" for about a year, I suppose ... and since my birthday is in the beginning of November, I was going to have to wait another year to begin kindergarten. Anyway, while she and the lead teacher wandered off to look at the facilities and programs and chat with the teachers, I slipped away at some point. Sat down at the edge of the little stage. And began telling a story.

I've no idea what that story was, now. As Chris told Gordie, stories just came out of me like bubbles in soda pop at that time. But apparently by the time mom and the lead teacher found me, I'd gathered a crowd of kids around the stage, all listening raptly.

In fact, I was hired as a copy writer for my current job, but to be honest, that word-smithing is the least favourite part of my current position now.

And in moments like this ...
... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... words fail me even more.

I avoided church like the plague for a good 10-15 years or more. I was a burned-out and disillusioned church-goer, tired of the hypocrisy and political in-fighting. And then I discovered Southside, a truly unique place, in my ever-so-humble opinion.

One of the people that I met there was Mary Lee ... though to hear it spoken, you'd swear it was Merrilee, all run together. Maybe it was because we were both Texans. Maybe because we're bother ornery as all hell. But I really got along with Mary Lee. Sweet, opinionated, wonderful lady.

When she broke her foot last year (I think it was last year), she had to use a walker for a while, and OH MY how she hated it. After some time, her husband got her a nicer one, one with a seat that she could rest on if she needed to ... and a basket for storing things. She complained about it, dammit, she wanted to be independent again. And she hated the space the thing took up. She joked about needing a horn to toot-toot people outa her way. Cuz Mary Lee was always on a mission.

Not long after that, I was in Toys R Us ... cuz I'm often there ... and I remembered to go to the bike equipment and picked up a nice little bicycle bell with kitty-cat paws on it. I was excited the next Sunday to give it to her. Oh my, did she laugh, an infectious and honest Texas belly laugh. Oh, ornery and fiesty, she was already planning on how to wreak havoc with that bell.

Every week at church when she'd see me, she'd ring that little bell and just giggle. Never failed to make us both laugh. She'd ring it and holler OUTA MY WAY as she made her way out of the sanctuary and into the narthex after service. And giggle again.

The tubing of the walker, however, was more slender than that of a bike handlebar, and before long, the bell would slip part-way down the walker and out of reach. She'd fuss, she'd make the kids and grandkids fix it, but eventually ... it would slip away again.

Much like she slipped away this morning.

The only words I know now are cliches, dull and hollow thunks, not the clear, ringing tone of her bell.

Wordless.
Just the sound of her bell.

Posted by Red Monkey at 2:40 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

February 12, 2007

Groundless Isolation

I am sitting in my car, rubbing my cold and hive-ridden hands together (I'm allergic to the cold), fussy that I forgot to bring my lunch to work which meant I had to go out in the cold. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her. I'm not sure I've ever seen someone move so slowly in my life. She's probably not even five foot tall - even in her winter snowboots. Her hair is completely covered by a scarf and she's wearing a puffy, old-skool type jacket, powder blue. She shuffles her feet through the snow and ice covered sidewalk, moving forward perhaps three inches at a time. And the whole time, her mouth is moving as she is muttering or reciting to herself ... it's hard to tell. Her lined face concentrates deeply on her path and holding her grocery bags. My light turns green before she reaches my door. I think about opening the passenger door and offering her a ride, but I know the cars behind me will honk, and I'm hungry, and I'm fairly certain it might take her half an hour to get into my car. Not to mention, I get the distinct impression she'd either say no, or beat me with that blue vinyl purse. I drive back to work.

The last few weeks have been bitter cold here. We're up to the mid 20s today and it actually feels warm. We don't have as much snow as upstate New York, mind you, but our streets have been messy and slippery and accident-prone for even the most careful of drivers.

I drive through downtown South Bend on my way to work. I pass the Hope Rescue Lodge, the Homeless Center and a few other charity organizations. Along with the crazy military surplus shop. (Look, there are military surplus shops that are awesome ... and then there are the ones run by psychos ... this one is pretty out there.) So for the past two weeks, I've seen them more and more.

Usually men in ragged coats, and I mean each one wearing multiple coats, trying to layer every piece of clothing onto their bodies that they can find. One of them was pushing a shopping cart of stuff through the snowy sidewalks - and if you've ever gone grocery shopping in the snow, you know that pushing that cart just as far as your car can be easily the day's cardio. There's a grim and determined look to them ... and something of a hopeless look as well.

They're tossed out of most shelters by 6 a.m. ... the library doesn't open for hours ... and they're often tossed out of there after a few hours.

Recently, four men were found dead and stuffed down the sewer system here. All four of them were homeless men who went around town looking for scrap metal to sell. It didn't make them a lot of money, but it kept body and soul together ... well, until someone started to target them, anyway.

I know plenty of people who say, "Hey, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps ... no one helped me and I didn't wind up on the streets, begging and pitiful."

It takes so very little to wind up on the streets. A health condition that knocks you out of work. Sure there's FMLA time ... but many employers don't pay you during that time. Maybe layoffs. Maybe a sick kid or spouse. Maybe the house you're renting is suddenly yanked away from you by the whim of the landlord ... and you don't have the time to scramble to put a security deposit, first and last month's rent down on a new place.

There are a lot of ways to end up on the streets. A lot.

And once you're there ... how do you pull yourself back out? If you've no phone or address, many places won't interview you for a new job. And even if you do get that far ... it's going to take a while to build up the money for that apartment. And really, once you start making some cash, wouldn't you move into a cheap motel and pay by the week? Get warm ... have a safe place to crash. Of course, those places are hotbeds of petty thievery, drug trafficking and plain violence. But at least you have four walls and a roof and you can lock the door. Better than a cardboard box under the bridge.

I wonder about the guys I see on my morning drive. Were they simply the victims of bad luck who can't see their way out? Are they completely alone, trying to fix themselves on their own?

I have that tendency, as do many people. "I can do it myself ... I don't need any help from anyone." But the fact of the matter is that we do need other people. In the most basic terms, we need the farmer to grow our food, the corporation to package it and get it out to the local store, and the local store to get the food at.

But I'm talking about something larger than that. When we cut ourselves off from other people and insist that we can do everything on our own ... the other people drift away. People like to feel as though friendships are reciprocal, a give and take, an exchange. Sure you don't want the friend who is so needy you're always at their beck and call. But we are social creatures ... even the most anti-social and introverted of us need some human contact other than ourselves. Without that contact we grow stagnant and brackish.

And when we insist that we can do everything ourselves, eventually those around us begin to either believe that ... or simply know that we won't accept the help. And when they don't feel needed ... they slip away as they befriend others who understand the reciprocal nature of friendship.

I will move furniture on my own before asking for help. It's easier and faster, I claim. Of course, if it's a large piece, I'm panting, on the verge of an asthma attack before I'm done. Why don't I ask for help? I know that I can move that piece by myself ... but why won't I share that load with someone else?

And how many of those people out on the streets are determined to do it themselves? How many of them have tried to do it themselves for so long, they can't remember what it's like to be helped?

And how many of them have hit rocks in the breakwater and are ready for help ... but the answers they hear are "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps like the rest of us." ??

The question that haunts me the most: how can I offer help and still keep safe?

Naturally, I can donate time and money and services to various organizations which help the homeless.

But what can I do about that guy I've seen pushing his cart ... not just the shelter that houses folks like him from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

We need to work together in order to stay grounded in this life. Despite the fact that I've always been rather fond of Woodrow Wilson's Isolationist theory ... it's simply not a realistic way for human beings to function.

We cannot grow and strive and flourish in isolation ... we must stay connected with others ... caring for each other ... being responsible for each other ... give and take ... back and forth. Together.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:29 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 27, 2007

What Is the Value of Family

The beginning of this series started two days ago with Louder than Words, continued with Book Learning, which you should read before continuing with today's post. :)

What does all of the previous information about me have to do with gay adoption?

I am sick to death of this utter CRAP about "traditional family values."

My father was raised by a mother and father. His dad worked hard. His mom stayed home with the kids.

My mother was raised by a mother and father. Her dad worked hard. Her mom stayed home with the kids. They went to church every week.

My parents were raised by people with "traditional family values." My parents had "traditional family values."

That did NOT make my parents good parents.

I did not turn out well because of my parents' traditional family values.

I turned out the way I did partly because I have always had an exceedingly strong sense of self. Because I stumbled upon books which nurtured me and encouraged me in believing that there was normalcy in the world. Because I had teachers who nurtured me even though they never did seem to realize just how much I needed that nor what was wrong.

What creates a well-balanced child ... and a well-balanced adult ... is not just a mother and a father. It is not what we erroneously call "traditional family values."

What creates a well-balanced child is love and attention and boundaries and knowing that all of this comes from someone who genuinely cares for you.

Is the ideal situation for a child a male and a female figure in their lives? Honestly, I don't know and I'm not sure that this is the best question to ask. The problem is that we simply do not live in an ideal world. We live in reality. And it's freaking messy and muddy and unclear down here in reality.

As for the idea that this Mom and Dad family is the Christian way to do things ... since in the U.S. and in the U.K. that seems to be the loudest voices of complaint ... let me set a few things straight.
First, it was not just Mom and Dad until perhaps the last 100 years (or less). Instead, it was most often either an extended family or something closer to a village or tribe. With multiple adults responsible for helping to love and discipline the children - not just one mother and father.
Second, Jesus was not born in the ideal situation. He was born to a mother and father, but he was not born in the rarified air of a good home. He was born, through no real fault of his parents, in the most real and common of places. In the mess and muck of a stable. Not the sanitized manger scene that we usually see.

Why bring up the manger? Because everything about Jesus in the Bible comes down to Jesus being very grounded in reality rather than intense numbers of rules.

To my mind, "family values" should simply mean that a child receives both love and discipline and knows that the person or people taking care of him care for him.

Ideally, children should probably know that they can trust all the adults around them ... that all the adults around them can administer trustworthy and valid and fair discipline.

But we don't live in that ideal world. And many of us prefer to discipline and raise our children according to our own ideas and our own beliefs.

So this old concept of "traditional family values" that is so carped on, is really something of a fallacy.

And, when we look at the reality that many children live in today: abandoned to orphanages, abused and taken from their family of birth, bounced from one foster home to another for a myriad of reasons. Children with "special needs" tend to be in a particularly grim situation. Their special needs mean they need more attention and understanding ... and often more discipline handled in a more thoughtfully fair way.

Is this the "family values" that people are carping about? Leaving these kids in the system?

If we can get children to an adult or adults who can handle the child ... who can give the child the love and discipline and let the child know how much they care about the kid ... isn't this preferable to keeping the kid in the system?

To my mind, this means no discrimination over the person's religion, their marital status, or ... if they're gay or not.

Those so-called "traditional family values" that people babble about ... what are they really?

Because to all appearances, my parents had those values. And I would not wish my childhood on anyone, much less a child. I said earlier that I would have been ecstatic to have lived in the worst inner city 'hood with a parent or parents who really loved me and cared for me. And I stand by that. I would rather have been raised by two fathers who loved me and took care of me. I would rather have lived with two moms who disciplined me and encouraged me in a rational manner.

I would have rather put up with the teasing and bullying at school for that ... than the utter isolation I went through.

And I think most children out there in orphanages, foster homes, and group homes would feel the same way.

Let's quit whining about what the absolute most ideal situation is ... let's live in the reality that these kids are living in. Get the kids adopted out to people who will care for them and not worry about if the family values of every family exactly and totally matches our own.

To borrow the words of those who seem to oppose gays adopting children the most, "please, let's think of the children."

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:31 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 26, 2007

Book Learning

The beginning of this series started yesterday with Louder than Words, which you should read before continuing with today's post. :)
This will not be an easy post for some people to read. Please be careful reading.

Imagine for just a moment, that you are with the people you love and trust most in the world. You are young. Maybe three. Maybe four. You are enjoying a shared time and hobby and things are wonderful. Then the person turns on you, does something horrific and tells you that it's not horrific. That you should be happy when you are sad, joyful when you are scared, content when you are angry.

If this happens once, it's likely stored in the brain as a traumatic memory and it probably works like any other memory.

But if this happens repeatedly, and particularly if the trusted person begins to add threats and fear and pain to the mix, how can this be a tolerable situation for a child?

For just a few minutes, put yourself in that situation. You can't tell or X bad thing will happen. You can't escape the situation. But how can you live with a monster? Not the monster under the bed who seemingly goes away some nights and comes back others ... but the parent you love and you live with who suddenly changes into this monster and you can't ever tell when that person will be your parent ... or when the monster will come out. There are no warnings. No signs to clue you in.

You can't leave and you can't live with the constant intense fear.

So you forget. Sort of. Those traumatic memories do get stored, but they get split apart. The neural pathways which connect the event with the narrative with the emotion with the feeling shatter. So you're left with a memory of the emotion, a memory of the feeling, and the memories of the narrative and the event (the movie, or pictures, if you will - and if you're a visual thinker) are all there ... scattered and disconnected.

You become, in some odd ways, two people. One who deals with the monster and one who deals with everyday life. And you wear a mask most of the time, and much earlier than most people (because let's face it, most adults wear various masks at various times). And I'm not talking about multiple personalities here, although I do believe that kind of personality split can happen given the exact wrong circumstances and the right child. Far more common, however, is something even more subtle.

By the third grade, I was one child at home, another "in public."

The public self who handled all the day-to-day living suspected that something was wrong and went to go look at child abuse books. The home-self knew what was wrong and tried to keep it further hidden.

It was a war that continued until long after I had moved out of my parent's house.

And while my father was sometimes a monster, and someone that, by the age of eight, I tried to avoid spending time with (you see how the public-self and the home-self gave each other ideas ... just no "concrete evidence" behind the shared ideas), there were other issues at home as well.

Not too surprisingly, my father was also cruel to our mother as well. And the battered spouse syndrome (regardless of whether there are physical beatings or not) is remarkably similar to that of the child. We never saw him violent with her. But whatever he did before we came along ... and whatever he did when we were not around, she was scared of him. And since most people cannot cope with this dichotomy of constant fear ... and yet love and trust of your chosen partner ... denial set in for her just as firmly as it had for me.

But it came out in subtle ways with Mom just as it did with me. She pushed my sister and I to excel in some area so that we would not be trapped. So that we would be independent when we were adults. For me, that meant pushing school so hard to the point that I was not really allowed to have hobbies. They distracted from schoolwork. In the course of a year, I was forced to quit one recreational activity after another: first my D&D group, then the magic club, then guitar lessons, last and hardest was basketball.

There was a constant and very subtle tension between her intellectually knowing that she should encourage us to do whatever we wanted ... and her very real fear that we could not do "this" or "that" for fear that we would not become independent in our own right.

Today I can see that her many fears of simpler things (the opossum in the trash can, for example) was simply a manifestation of her fear of my father ... and her feeling trapped with him. As a child, with the simplicity of thought in children, I simply thought she was stupid, and I dismissed her.

But there was another dimension to that dismissal as well. It was also self-preservation.

Despite Mom's occasional protestations that she loved us very much and didn't I know that ... I really didn't feel that from her. As I said yesterday, I felt the sting of being told I didn't do things right far more than I ever felt the comfort of a hug.

I dismissed her largely because I felt that I had been dismissed by her. And why keep going back to someone for love and comfort when that rarely seems to be forthcoming? When a request for comfort instead results in more pain, doubled pain because it was unexpected and came from the person was was "supposed to" love you unconditionally?

And so, I turned to books. I got what nurturing I could out of reading stories about families who did love each other instead of simply saying they did. I learned about human interactions more from books than I did from my parents or even socialization with my peers. That saved me. It gave me some semblance of normality whilst I grew up, and thank goodness for that.

Again, what the heck does all of this have to do with gay adoption?
I'll get into that in the next post. :)
(Which will be the last in this little series.)

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:26 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 25, 2007

Louder Than Words

I write this post with some trepidation for many reasons. One, I know that my little sister reads my blog (not that she's little any more) and I haven't discussed this in quite this way with her before. Two, because I started this blog with the intentions of discussing my adventures in teaching ... it never did quite pan out that way, but I made a decision early on for this not to be "one of those blogs. Blogs wailing about poor pitiful li'l ole me and my "horrible" life. And three, because the day that my mom discovers this blog, the shit will hit the proverbial fan.

And yet, this hypocritical brouhaha over whether or not gays should adopt, leaves me, personally, with little choice. I find that I have to write a few serious posts which will go into my childhood and talk about my family. There will be serious moments and funny moments. Because that's just how I am.

And here's why:

By the time I began the third grade, I knew that something was terribly wrong in my family. We had lived in seven homes in six towns by the time I started kindergarten. And despite the fact that we had not moved between kindergarten and the beginning of third grade, I'd already gone to two elementary schools. (The Catholic school experiment of second grade was simply an utter disaster ... go figure.)

In essence, by the time I was nine, I had "moved," in terms of any kind of socialization with others, a total of eight times. This helped to shape me into something of a loner. It might have made another child more outgoing and honed their social skills to a fine point ... for me, I drew inward. Why work hard to make friends when I would simply be moved away from them again in a short time?

I did make friends, just not quickly nor easily.

My best friends, and, in fact, my true "parents," were found in the library. I said in an earlier post that distancing myself from my parents had saved my life. And I ended the post by adding, "Well, that and the bookmobile." And the truth of the matter was that I learned far more about families and love from the books that I read than I did from my parents. (Note to my sister: and you and the extended family ... just not from Mom and Dad.)

So as I realized that something was terribly wrong in our family, I did what any little third grade TOTAL geek-child would do: I went to the library.

Heart banging in my chest, trying very hard NOT to look about furtively as I approached the 300s, I passed books of statistics on various countries, passed books on civil rights, on slavery, politics, economics ... and I was sure that by the time I got to the 360s that every person not just in the library, but the entire school, and possibly all of Austin, knew that I was pulling out the first book on child abuse that I saw.

I went to one of the little desks, sat down, began with the table of contents. Began paging through the book, heart still racing, watching the clock, trying not to panic when my teacher or the librarian walked past me. To this day, I can clearly recall the first chapter of the book describing cases of neglect, primarily in the inner city. There was a heavy implication that child neglect was obviously an inner city issue ... probably something inherent in "the blacks."

I was inclined to distrust the book already.

I was also horrified to read what some children had gone through. Having to fend completely for themselves, find their own food, water, even shelter.

We are shopping. I am talking to the artist about his work. Mom, bored, not finding what she was interested in, moves on to the next stall. I continue talking to the artist, babbling as only a three-year-old can. Question after question after - we are interrupted by my mother, voice high-pitched and tight. "THERE you are! Don't ever wander away from me again!" I protest that I never did wander away, I've been right here this whole time. I learn quickly that I have to watch for Mom or she will wander off without me and never realize it.

This child-neglect was not what I had come to find out about.

The next chapter or two covered physical abuse. Again, I was horrified to read about ... and in some cases, see ... the horrific things that some adults had done to infants, toddlers ... kids like me.

This was not what I had come to find out about either.

I am running through the apartment in Carmel, Indiana. I am running for my life, terrified beyond belief. I am literally flying up the stairs, if I can just get far enough ahead, he won't know where I hide. I'm really good at hiding. I fly into their room. Into their closet; I've got a plan. But he's too close behind me. The closet door opens ... there's a silhouette of a man, belt raised above his head.
Mommy is cooking dinner. Daddy is getting a beer from the fridge. I want to see dinner. Little hands struggle high over my head, grasping at the top of the stove, for what I don't know. "Don't you know that's hot? I'll show you how hot it is." And he removes the pot from the gas flame and holds my hand there ... not long enough to blister, but long enough to learn fire is bad.

Sure, my parents spanked me once in a while, but they never did the horrible things described in that book. Neglect was not what was wrong in my family. Physical abuse was not what was wrong with my family.

The next chapter or two dealt with sexual abuse.

I turned to the next chapter as quickly as possible without calling attention to myself. THAT was CERTAINLY NOT what was wrong with our family.

Evenings with Daddy, watching Planet of the Apes together up in their room. ... the little Red Riding Hood mask which terrified me before Daddy even showed it to me ... Jeannie's house ... the sickest feeling in the pit of my stomach, worse even than before I throw up. No, no, no, this could not be what was wrong with our family.

I leafed idly through the rest of the book. A chapter on alcoholism caught my attention for a while, but it didn't really seem like just drinking alone really counted enough to be abuse. Dejected, I replaced the book. Obviously Mom and Dad were right: I just didn't appreciate what I had.

After all, Mom told me over and over how lucky we were: we had two parents who loved us.

But the thing is, the real truth of the matter, is that Mom's favourite phrase would come back to haunt her. "Actions speak louder than words." And as often as she said that to us, I very rarely actually felt it. We had the "perfect" family. Mom, Dad, two kids. Mom stayed home with us. Dad had a great job, even if we did seem to have to move around a lot. But what I saw and felt were the constant complaints about having to clean up after us, about having to make us Kool-Aid all the time, about the trouble that i got in constantly (I didn't except for in her head), about driving us to school.

And, apparently, I didn't "play" right. So any time that I, or my sister and I together, convinced Mom to play a game with us, it didn't last long. I was too rough, rambunctious or loud. When we were colouring, and I proudly showed Mom how great I was colouring, she told me I was doing it wrong. Apparently five year olds should be able to do more than stay within the lines ... I should have been colouring in small circles so that diagonal patterns didn't appear in my picture.

So, I spent time with my Fisher Price Little People ... played with the kids a couple of doors down when I could, and tried to keep mostly to myself when at home.

What does any of this have to do with gay adoptions?

The reasoning takes a little more set-up. I'll get there, hang in with me.

Posted by Red Monkey at 5:59 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 21, 2007

Scared but Free

What is it that causes us to close our minds? To see only in black and white, right and wrong? What is it in us which seems to scream, "It's my way or the highway - if you don't like it leave"?

I read excerpts from Hrant Dink's final article today ... and intend to see if I can track down the full text later. But at the very least, this edit was not just poignant, but leads me to questions that I have asked for most of my life.

As a selective follower of the news, I offer this brief bit of context about Hrant Dink: he was a journalist living in Turkey, working for the Agos newspaper, his newspaper. He had written about how in the last days of the Ottoman Empire ... in 1915 ... the Turks slaughtered Armenians in what he claimed amounted to a genocide. (Please, I'm not necessarily disagreeing with him! I've not done the research and I'm just giving a brief synopsis.) A lawsuit was brought against him for defaming Turkey in his writing. Despite losing the initial lawsuit, Mr. Dink stood his ground ... tried to convince people he was not anti-Turkey at all. He was shot and killed by a 16 or 17 year old Turkish boy, Friday, 19 January 2007.

This is a series of excerpts from his final article ... longer excerpts can be found on the BBC: Hrant Dink's final article (Original text from Agos is here ... but I don't know how long this link will remain directed to this article.)

What is truly threatening and unbearable for me is the psychological torture I place myself in. The question that really gets to me, is: 'What are these people thinking about me?'
Unfortunately I am now better-known than before and I feel people looking at me, thinking: 'Oh, look, isn't he that Armenian guy?'
I am just like a pigeon, equally obsessed by what goes-on on my left and right, front and back. My head is just as mobile and fast. ...
Do you ... know the price of making someone as scared as a pigeon?
What my family and I have been through has not been easy. I have considered leaving this country at times ...
But leaving a 'boiling hell' to run to a 'heaven' is not for me. I wanted to turn this hell into heaven.
We stayed in Turkey because that was what we wanted - and out of respect for the thousands of people here who supported me in my fight for democracy ...
2007 will probably be an even harder year for me. The court cases will continue, new ones will be initiated and God knows what kind of additional injustices I will have to face.
I may see myself as frightened as a pigeon, but I know that in this country people do not touch pigeons.
Pigeons can live in cities, even in crowds. A little scared perhaps, but free.

What is it in us which makes us so sure that we are right that we feel the need to utterly crush those who disagree with us? Why is it so hard for us to live side by side with those with whom we disagree?

What is it which causes us to sneak into the night, erect a cross in a yard and light it afire? What is it which causes us to so hate what we think another culture represents that we feel secure in an attempt to annihilate them?

I think, in most situations, it is that which we try to spread ... what we use to attempt to intimidate: fear.

We fear that which is different from us.

What I don't think I will ever understand is why? Why are we so damn scared of something different? of different ideas and concepts and ways of living?

I'm not talking about those in power who do encourage and insist upon genocide. We can search out the reasons for individuals like Hitler and those of his ilk.

I'm talking about both the smaller and larger scales here. I define smaller as those pockets of violence (physical or threats/words) which are isolated from other such pockets. And I define larger as: as a species, why do we seem so prone to this?

When I taught first-year writing, I would see this over and over and over again. Any idea or concept that was outside most of my students' personal experience was stupid and to be ridiculed. Anyone adhering to those suspect ideas was usually told "well, this is the way things are here ... if you don't like it, leave." We did have good debates ... if I intervened and opened this up for discussion. If I did not (for example, if I simply overheard students discussing an issue in the school newspaper before class), then generally speaking "my way or the highway" seemed to rule the day.

Not all of my students were like this ... and I don't think all people are either. But it does seem to be a terribly pervasive response in humans, regardless of culture.

I can understand suspicion of that which is different. But why the violence? And why does it seem to be hard-wired into the biology of so many people?

As a child I did not understand the saying "Violence never solved anything." Of course it did. If you killed or obliterated the person responsible for whatever, the problem was over, right?

Today, I see that the saying, while not really literally true, is far more complex than I thought as a child. Violence is a short term solution. It doesn't solve the problem, and it quite often makes the whole, larger issue much worse.

If you execute Hitler, but do nothing to address the ideas which he espoused, you have not solved the problem. You have made a martyr. You have ensured that his ideas will spread and grow.

If you assassinate Martin Luther King you do not solve the "problem" of racial separation.

(Thank goodness Germany did attempt to address the ideas and have worked with varying degrees of success to deal with those issues. ... And I do think that racial separation is a terrible problem - the inequitable treatment of people for race or sex or nationality or gender or sexuality ... or 9 million other fabricated reasons - is always abhorrent to me.)

Are we so afraid of discussion? of having our ideas changed and challenged that we can't see that we are all far more similar than different? Isn't the person who bombs an abortion clinic the same as the suicide bomber who thinks capitalism is evil? They're both striking out with violence at an idea which is abhorrent to them. They're attempting to create terror around those who ascribe to those ideas.

I may see myself as frightened as a pigeon, but I know that in this country people do not touch pigeons. Pigeons can live in cities, even in crowds. A little scared perhaps, but free.

We are all scared pigeons for some reason or another. Some of us are honest about it ... admit that we fear. Others of us have convinced ourselves that we are fearless. And with that conviction inevitably comes righteousness in our decisions ... that we are correct and that we own the one true path that everyone else should follow. Further down that road it becomes not the joking "Oh, if I ran the world, it would be so much better!" ... but a serious thought: "If people would just do things my way." And then: "People should do things my way."

And that conviction leads to scaring others ... and if we continue down that road ... it leads to "final solutions" which are no solutions at all, but simply methods of propagating both the ideas we claim to find so wrong ... and more people who are so very scared that they react with a desperate and wounded soul, attempting to defend themselves from violence with violence.

Abandon the path to Koyaanisqatsi.
Find Hozho.

(Yes, I purposely mixed two cultural concepts.)

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:34 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

January 1, 2007

Happy New Year

"Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain."

I have never seen a statement more true than that. And I'm not referring to myself, don't worry.

But a very dear friend just found himself in that situation. Where he was trying so hard to avoid the coping mechanisms that he'd developed over the years which weren't so great, that he found himself in the position where he was simply out of coping mechanisms and didn't know where to turn or what to do.

In a similar situation? Try here.

I know the holidays -- whichever ones you celebrate -- can be hard for everyone. Please ... if you are having a difficult time, there are people who are ready to listen ... to be with you.

If you are prone to bad times, reach out. As difficult as that can be ... and dear gods above, below and in between, I do know how hard that can be ... but please, as difficult as it can be ... reach out. There are people who will listen. There are people who do care (and I know you know that and likely don't need the extra guilt).

For me, before I even knew the whole story yesterday morning, just hearing that a friend was hurt and in hospital, I went walking in the state park for two hours over the advanced rugged trail, as fast as I could go.

For you, hopefully, it is talking to someone. Reaching out. Not letting yourself be isolated.

Because no matter what we think, we are ALL interconnected. No matter the culture, the country, the life ... we are far more connected than we think.

Reach out. Talk.

Please.

Interact.

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:37 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

December 8, 2006

Sing a New Song

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Kids love to sing. Whether it's the random sing-song of what they're doing or going to do ... or think their imaginary friends are doing - or if it's singing the McDonald's jingle in the car as they drive past the cholesterol arches - or singing holiday songs ... there's just no doubt that kids love to sing.

I can remember a particular game my sister and my mom and I used to play all the time when J and I were small. Mom would start humming a song and my sister and I would try to guess which song it was. The person who guess correctly first got to hum a song and have the others guess. It was a very fun game, but by the age of three, my sister was darn good at it. I was seven and I thought I should always beat my baby sis, so I didn't take it too well when I realized that Mom and I could guess her songs much quicker than anyone could guess the ones I hummed. And that's when Mom told me I couldn't hum anymore ... I had to sing lalalala.

Well, I did have the allergies from hell and my nose was always stuffed up as a kid. I had allergy shots once a week, a slew of medications to gag down, and still, if I had a single day without a stopped up nose, that was a freaking HUGE star.pngstar.png of a day! So, it did make sense that humming was probably never going to be my forte.

Like most little kids, though, I adored music class in school - if we were actually singing good music, that is. And I loved to sing the minor songs of Halloween with my friends at school. (Anyone remember this one: "Old Abram Brown is dead and gone, we'll never see him more ... he used to wear a big brown cape, all buttoned down before" ??)

So, one day Julie, the older girl across the street, and I were singing "Jingle Bells" for whatever odd reason. (It was summer.) Julie, in one of her really bossy moments, was leading a small group of us. She cocked her hands on her hips, turned her head to the side and looked me straight in the eye.

"You can't sing."

My jaw hit the St. Augustine grass. "I can too!"

We sang some more ... but she stopped us mid-song. Pointed at me. "YOU CAN'T SING."

Apparently having a wee bit of a sensitive moment, I tried very hard not to burst into tears ... and I ran home to tell my mommy. (Hey, I was seven, darnit. That's what you do at seven. Well, providing you don't pop the other kid in the mouth ... but she had an older brother ....)

"Mom, Julie said I can't sing!"

Mom, ever the comforter, says, "Well, sing something for me."

I couldn't believe it. I thought moms were immediately supposed to back you up on the important things in life. But, well, okay. I could take it. I would show Julie ... I would show everyone.

And I began singing "Jingle Bells."

Mom got a funny look on her face, stopped me and told me to start over. This time she let me get all the way through the song. When I finished, I looked at her expectantly. I already knew that my sister's voice was better than mine. But I was all right. I mean, I wasn't going to be a rock star, but I could sing all right.

"You can't carry a tune," Mom said and went back to preparing for dinner.

I was shocked. Here was something I shared at school and at home ... something I did at church ... nearly everywhere I went ... and apparently I sucked.

It was a devastating blow for me.

I tried to not play the guess-the-song game anymore. I was terribly jealous of my sister's joyous singing everywhere she went. I began whisper-singing in church ... and if I forgot myself and actually sang at a normal volume, Mom usually elbowed me and told me to hush.

But I kept trying. As I got older, I practiced with the radio. And then my cassette tapes and vinyl LPs. But always quietly and alone in my room.

I went out for the Texas Girls Choir in ... hmm, either fifth or sixth grade ... and my mother was just appalled when she found out I had signed up for auditions. She gave me that horrendous pitying look and tried to talk me out of it.

But the deal was this: I didn't believe her so much any more. I was scared that she was right ... but she was wrong about so very many things, that I thought maybe, if I could quit being so scared about it, I could prove to her that she was wrong about this as well.

Sadly, after Mom's "pep" talk (consisting of trying to talk me out of this because I was just going to get hurt), I was so utterly terrified at the tryouts that I couldn't really do more than whisper. The vocal coach tried to get me to actually sing ... but it was a foregone conclusion. I just wasn't quite strong enough to shrug off all the weight Mom had piled onto my shoulders.

I did join the school choir in sixth grade ... enjoyed our nine weeks of choir in seventh grade (we didn't have a real elective ... just nine weeks of one thing and then nine weeks of something else). I sang in the shower -- if no one else was home. I sang with my guitar lessons and during practice. But by the end of seventh grade, I refused to sing where anyone could hear me at all.

The past few years, however, I've learned a lot about singing. I've listened to our church choir as it grew from just 6 people to some 20 or more. And after about two years worth of urging, I finally gave up and joined the choir. I'm still terribly unsure of myself ... but I can see now where a lot of those early issues were coming from.

One, my singing voice is in the tenor range ... and my mother truly expected me to be a soprano. So when she played a note out of my range on the piano ... of course I couldn't hit it. But that didn't mean I couldn't carry a tune. Two, I do have something of a falsetto which can reach soprano ... but it's a very soft voice and if I try to push that with any kind of projection or real volume ... ewww ... major suckage and cracking.

It's been a kind of amazing thing for me to be in choir this year. When our choir director plays the tenor part and I know that I'm square on the notes (except once we starting going above middle C ... sketchy territory there!) ... the pride and the pleasure is just ... I dunno. Something I never thought I would have. Of course, after being picked on all those years, I'm sure every criticism and suggestion given to the tenors is directed at me alone ... but I'm getting over that. I've got a lot more confidence about it.

And really, the biggest part of that was realizing that when I sing within my range instead of fighting to sing the range that someone else expects of me ... things go a lot better.

Funny how long it took me to come to that conclusion. In every other aspect of my life, I've always opted to be myself and not even attempt to be whatever it was other people thought I should be. I don't know why I had to fight so hard to make my voice my voice instead of someone else's. But I'm glad I did ... glad I finally got around to taking that risk.

music.png music.png music.png music.png music.png

Posted by Red Monkey at 12:04 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 30, 2006

Hanging by a Thread

I went for a nice long walk in the woods today ... 65 degrees in Indiana, who'd have thought it? Near the end of the walk, as I was watching the wind in the trees and listening to the distinctive creaking of wood against wood, I saw this stick not quite ready to give up the fight.

Seemed appropriate.
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Posted by Red Monkey at 4:14 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 29, 2006

The Stolen

It's been a particularly hard couple of weeks. I've been slammed by PTSD for most of that time, my partner's "maybe I'm having a health problem" issues have developed into full-blown pain and for which the appointment with the specialist isn't until tomorrow. (A full month after the regular doctor wanted it.)

I'm disgusted by things I've read in the news lately ... one story, two story, red story, blue story.

And so, I share with you a favourite short reading that's been on my mind recently. For whatever reason as a child, I decided that since my family refused to "own" any ethnicity (well, we were Lithuanian ... but Mom told me they didn't exist anymore because they'd been swallowed up by Russia ... in my child's mind, I decided that meant that ethnicity didn't exist ... hey, I was like six at the time) ... anyhow, since the family wasn't any particular ethnicity, I "shopped" around and learned about a few cultures and picked Irish. I decided I like Ireland and I like the mythos of the island and since they were a better physical match for me than my much beloved Navajos, obviously I was Irish.

What can I say? I was an odd child.

So, in high school, when I discovered Yeats ... keep in mind that I HATE poetry ... I particularly fell in love with this short bit.

The Stolen Child
by William Butler Yeats
Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
Away with us he's going,
The solemn-eyed:
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.

It just seems fitting given the last couple of weeks I've had.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:42 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 19, 2006

More Closets

Remember the first time it occurred to you as a kid that the fastest way to clean your room was to simply shove things out of sight? Throw stuff in the closet, under the bed, anywhere so your mom wouldn't see it when she came in to inspect?

Of course, you might have fooled your folks once or twice ... likely when they were simply too tired to deal with anything other than the blessed appearance of a clean room ... but for most of us, at some point they simply opened the closet door, and like the cartoons, all your carefully crammed-in stuff came pouring out into the room.

For those of us who had a room and a closet, this becomes a powerful metaphor for a lot of the crazy stuff we try to hide from ourselves. It's what's made "coming out of the closet" such a powerful metaphor for people finally admitting that they're gay.

But there are loads of other closets, or boxes, that we stuff little bits of our selves and our lives into when we just don't have the time or the energy to really give them the thorough cleaning (and processing) that we need to. Whether we stick those boxes in the attic or the basement or the top of the closet, we put them out of sight to keep them out of our minds.

My subconscious was so concerned with keeping those boxes in their appropriate hiding places, that the closet was never quite so much of an issue for me.

The second life-altering question that I asked in CCD the year I told my mother that Dad was an alcoholic ...
I asked what it was, what it really meant, to be gay.

Again, I knew what the Catholic party line was. But dammit, this was a sex education class and I didn't know anything about gays and I was curious. What was all the darn fuss about?

And, of course, in the back of my mind ... I could see a scene from the summer before when one of my best friends stood in the hospital where we were candy stripers and said that she hadn't really decided if she "liked" boys or girls yet. And my utter shock ... not at her saying that ... not at the concept ... but at her utterly without-fear, matter-of-fact-ness about it.

I was impressed that the Moms and Dads (and the one creepy pedophile) who volunteered to teach this year-long class called Sex Education: The Catholic Version. They tried to somewhat balance the need to be careful of adolescents ... the strictures of the church ... and their own queasy feelings with the societal opinion of queers in the mid 80s (pre-AIDS epidemic).

It wasn't so much that they said anything earth-shattering ... I mean, they pretty well stuck to the party line ... it's a sin ... but the fact that I was finally starting to articulate the thoughts to myself ... that was the real growth and change for me.

Fast forward to December 1987, the end of my first year at uni. I was still living at home as I'd been forbidden to go to any college where I would/could not live at home. Hmm ... but that's yet another story ... tied in to this ... but for another day.

The whole first semester of uni, I'd seen posters up for the GLA on campus ... and I knew I should resolve this suspicion I had about myself. Because the fact of the matter was ... I just wasn't interested in guys. Maybe I hadn't found the right guy yet, I didn't know. But when I thought about the celebrities I was most interested in ... well, let's just say it wasn't the guys.

It's an old story for a while after that ... I met someone ... we fell in love ... we planned on moving out in May and getting our own apartment together.

I didn't tell anyone in my family.

I told my best friend, Andy, whom I'd also dated during most of high school. And that's where the trouble came in ... not from Andy directly, but ... well, I digress. Let me leave out the "who" to this one part of the story and I'll tell that another time.

Suffice it to say that one Monday night, there was a phone call at the house. Mom answered it. We didn't get a lot of phone calls, so I noticed it, but when it didn't directly concern me, I didn't pay it any more attention. Silly, silly me. I was commanded that night by my mother in her "royal highness" persona, to get up early, but not go to school.

Instantly I knew that alien abduction was real. My mother had been probed ... or perhaps replaced with a clone or a robot. Because my mother would NEVER tell me to skip a class!

When I get up the next morning and go into her room, she's seated in her recliner and there's nowhere to sit but the floor. The supplicant before the queen.

She begins her series of pronouncements with: "I got a phone call last night." Pregnant pause. "Do you know who it was?"

I had to literally bite my tongue to keep from saying, "Uh, no, you answered the phone, not me." I managed to simply shake my head no.

"Well, a man said that you and L were 'moving into a lesbian relationship.'"

I just looked at her and nodded. She apparently thought I was encouraging her to keep talking rather than answering the implied question.

"Well are you?"

Now, we have to take a quick time-out here. You see, Mom knew that L and I had been hanging out quite a lot lately and that I seemed very happy. Not two weeks before she grinned at me and said, "It looks like you really found your soul mate." I thought she'd figured things out and was okay with it.

At any rate, with all the snottiness of a 19 year old who knows she's moving out in a month anyway, I nodded and said, "Well yeah."

Mom promptly burst into tears and announced, "Now I have to divorce your father."

What, you say. You didn't quite follow that? No, I didn't leave a sentence or paragraph or event out. Upon discovering I was gay, Mom's first words were "Now I have to divorce your father." One of the many extraordinary proclamations she's made over the years. "Now I have to divorce your father."

Her next words were, "You can't live with me if you're going to be that way." And it was said in a rather threatening tone.

I simply shrugged and pointed out that L and I had signed a lease, and I would be moving out of the house in a matter of weeks anyway.

It was as if she didn't hear me.

"You can't be that way and live under my roof, and I know you don't want to live with him."

"I. Signed. A. Lease." Blank stare from Mom. "I. Am. Moving. To. My. Own. Place."

Sometimes saying simple words slowly actually works the details into her brain. However, this time we must have gone round and round for nearly 30 minutes before she looked at her watch and announced that she'd set up an appointment with a counselor at the Catholic renewal center in Fort Worth. And that we needed to leave now to make the appointment.

And then ... "Is it because your dad ...." and she trailed off.

Again, my mind made a very brief trip to the box in the top of their closet ... and despite feeling like I was going to throw up ... "No!" I told her.

The meeting with the Catholic counselor was essentially anti-climactic. She also asked me about Dad ... and the now familiar cold pit of my stomach ... but she didn't chastise me for "thinking" that I was gay ... or for moving out. She was quite cool, actually.

Over the next month before I moved out of the house, I repeatedly heard the threat ... "What are you going to do? You can't live with me if you're going to be this way. And I don't think you want to live with him."

What I have come to understand over the years is that this really odd obsession that Mom had ... repeating this little mantra over and over ... had a lot of meanings that I missed at 19.

If ... as Mom and even I believed at the time ... if things weren't "that bad," why did she keep saying "I don't think you want to live with him"?
Why could she not retain the knowledge that I was moving out?
Why did she insist on divorcing him after 25 years of marriage ... just because I didn't turn out "perfect"?
Why was it the only time that she realized I was moving out ... was when she thought about me living with him.

The sad conclusion fitting all the puzzle pieces that I've presented here, in other posts ... and additional puzzle pieces that I haven't written about here ... it all boils down to this:

Mom knew.

She knew what had happened. She knew ... and she knew that once I finally escaped from that house ... that the protection she had enjoyed for years ... the protection that she and my sister had enjoyed for years ... would be over. He would be forced to pick a new victim. And she couldn't stand that thought, so she knew she had to leave to protect herself and my sister.

I'm glad she protected my sister finally. I'm still furious that she didn't ... that she couldn't do the same for me.

And that's all of the story behind the picture that I can tell you today. I can tell you that it doesn't fully explain all of the imagery in that picture ... but I'm not sure that story is fit for public consumption.

But that should be enough to explain the need for the photo and its timing ... even if that ever-so disturbing skeleton isn't yet explained ... I don't think you really want to know that ... I'm not sure I want to know ... to articulate that.

Posted by Red Monkey at 1:02 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 18, 2006

Skeletons in the Closet

In Why 67 & Counting I said that there were two life-changing questions I asked in CCD the year that I informed my mother that Dad was an alcoholic. The first resulted in my going to Alateen.

After Mom got over the shock of my pronouncement of the obvious, she was horrified that I'd told my CCD teacher and after that first trip to Alateen, Mom insisted on driving me and waiting for me in the parking lot. Never mind the Al-Anon meetings for spouses and the like took place at the same time as Alateen. Mom was not looking to talk to anyone, thank you very much.

The day after I'd been that first time, when she let me know that she'd be taking me from now on ... she said something very very curious. "I can trust you to go, because you won't tell any of the family secrets. I can't trust your sister to go. She'd tell everything."

I'm sure I don't have the words exactly, perfectly correct ... but that was the gist.

I felt a nasty, cold, terrified feeling in the pit of my stomach at those words. The roar of rushing blood was back in my ears. And to be honest, I felt a little bit dizzy.

I was going to Alateen to talk about Dad being an alcoholic. Wasn't that the family secret?

For a brief moment, my mind flashed to a box that I'd once discovered in Dad's side of Mom and Dad's closet while looking for Christmas presents one year. It was a long and deep cardboard box for storing blankets or something. I thought that was a good place to start looking for presents. I pulled a chair into the closet and lifted the box down, stunned at how heavy it was. Obviously there weren't just blankets in this box. I lifted the lid ....

And my mind snapped back to the present, Mom telling me that we'd leave at 6:45 and that we'd not be telling Dad or my sister where we were going.

Over the course of the next few months, I went regularly to Alateen. The facilitators were great ... the kids were cool. I wanted to fit in, but I found that most of the time I simply couldn't talk. I was stunned by how many of the others were also alcoholics. And more often than not, they tended to talk about their own struggles with alcohol more than how they dealt with their parent(s).

And, there was the weekly struggle with Mom. "Do you really need to go again?" "Do we have to do this every week?" and the particularly disturbing "What do you tell them, anyway? You're not telling any of our secrets?"

That question gave me the cold pit in my stomach every single time ... as it was supposed to.

Finally, the benefit I might be getting from the program was far, far out-weighed by the struggle it took to get there every week. Much to Mom's delight, I finally told her one night that I was tired of listening to the other kids talk about their own alcohol issues and that I didn't want to go anymore. She was not only ecstatic, but she tried to tell me that our family didn't really have any problems and that Dad's alcoholism was just "not that bad." I didn't say anything. It was that bad. But that was an argument not worth having with her then. I let it drop.

So ... asking about how to deal with an alcoholic parent was one of the two questions I asked in CCD that year. I'll post about the second life-altering question tomorrow.

Same Bat-time ... same Bat-channel ... same batty me. comments/what.gif

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:33 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 16, 2006

Why 67 & Counting?

MsDemmie asked:

I guess asking here is out of the question ?

Hey, you guys can ask a question any time. ANY time. About anything. At worst, I'll email you back and say no. But I won't be offended or upset or ignore you or something. Of course, knowing me I might forget about it and leave it in my inbox for a month before going ... Oh crap, I KNEW there was SOMETHING.

So, no, it's not out of the question at all to ask for an explanation ... but it's probably not a comfortable post ... well, neither was that photo, actually. At any rate, this will be a split post. If you're curious, click through. If not ... i'll try to have more interesting stories by the weekend.

Well, I changed my mind, and I've edited this post to NOT be a click-thru for more type of post ... because I'm continuing the saga in a series of posts ... and I have no intention of "hiding" all of them. If I'm gonna talk about it, I'm gonna talk about it. comments/what.gif

When I went back to Texas this summer so my other half could visit a prospective seminary and so I could get some time back home finally, I visited with my mom a couple of days. We have a rocky relationship at best.

Actually, sit back ... this is going to be a long post and will probably be a series over the weekend.

An example of my mother's and my relationship:
at fifteen, I was struggling a lot ... like most fifteen year olds, really. But I'd reached a point where I was seriously struggling with the fact that my dad was an alcoholic and that Mom, whether she would admit it or not, was terrified of him. There were no big sunglasses and "hidden" black eyes ... no broken bones ... but we were still always awaiting the eruption of violence. I couldn't deal with her denial and his drinking. It was driving me crazy.

So, at CCD (that's essentially Sunday school for Catholic kids ... usually on Wednesday night ... the night all my Baptist friends were also at church), we actually had a "sex education" year. Essentially, a year's worth of what the Catholic Church thinks about sex. Yeah, I thought "not unless you're married and procreating" would take perhaps ten minutes, not a whole school year, but there you are. Our CCD instructors instituted a box where we could anonymously place questions.

I placed two in that box that year. And they both were pretty life-changing ... not necessarily for the answers I got, but for the fact that I finally allowed myself to really articulate my thoughts.

The first was what to do with an alcoholic dad.

The teacher I was most comfortable with was the one fielding the questions at the end of the evening and she talked about AA and Alateen and the fact that there were options ... but if whoever asked the question was ready, they really needed some face to face time with the person who asked the question. I was ready. After most of the other kids had gone, I walked up to her, as I did most nights, really, and said that I'd asked about the alcoholic. We sat down and she agreed that she would drive me to an Alateen meeting and bring me home.

I was ecstatic.

I didn't tell my mom.

But, I was also never allowed out of the house for any reason or for any length of time without Mom know where, when and with whom. I had to tell her.

Ten minutes before my ride arrived, I walked into Mom's room and asked her if I could go to Alateen. The blood was absolutely rushing in my ears and I could barely hear her. She was shocked. Horrified. (Denial is a powerful thing, you know.) But what she said was:

"Oh my God, are you an alcoholic?"

Other than the very rare sip of beer when I was four and five, I had never even tasted alcohol. I was one of those ultra-square kids who never did anything wrong (except cut up in class ... but usually stopped just before the teacher got irritated). I reacted with as much shock as my mother had. And, with all the stunned and snotty hauteur of a fifteen year old, I said:

"No, Dad is."

Our relationship was always like this. She didn't see what other people were doing ... right in front of her eyes, but I was obviously a rebellious and problematic teen.

I didn't talk back. (Other than the occasional bouts of teenaged snottiness)
I never once snuck out of the house.
I was always home before curfew.
I didn't drink and I never even tried illegal drugs.
I also never smoked.
My friends had to convince me to actually skip on senior skip day.

And yet I was repeatedly told what a horrible teenager I was.

So .... now ... back to the photo. (Oh yeah, this all started with yesterday's photo, didn't it?)

I have been pestering my mother for photos since I moved out of the house at 19. She has refused and gotten terribly angry with me every time I've asked. I don't know why.

Several years ago, I convinced her to go with me to Kinko's and get a few run off on the colour copier. But this year, I took my computer and my scanner to Texas with me, with the full intention of scanning huge chunks of the photos. As many as possible.

Mother was both confused and furious. She tried talking me out of bringing the scanner. She pointed out my laptop might be stolen while I was traveling. She told me repeatedly that I couldn't have the originals.

So the day we spent at her house, I brought laptop and scanner. When I pulled them out of my backpack and began looking for a good place to set up, she was horrified.

I don't know why she doesn't want me to have the pictures. It's not just the originals that concern her. She was horrified that I wanted the pictures at all.

My guess is that she's afraid somewhere in these pictures there's a skeleton key that will unlock things she doesn't want to look at. And I think she's afraid that if I ever unlock those doors behind which my whole family has stuffed our various skeletons ... I think she's afraid I'll tell the whole world.

She's right to be afraid. I'm sure I probably will.

So I'm curious. Why did she now want me to have the pictures? Why did she cut out the background of the one I used yesterday (and one other picture). I remember those pictures ... she didn't cut any people out ... she cut the background out of it.

As for superimposing the skeleton over my father and use the gravestone morphed onto the birthday cake ... that's another story. One that most people can probably guess given this post and the locked doors post. All I can say is that creepy as the picture might be ... I'm not sure it really begins to describe the creepiness that went on.

I guess it was my way of saying to Dad, "Wow. You made it to 67. Huh."

(All of that explanation ... and you learned more about me and my Mom than about Dad ....)

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:50 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

November 15, 2006

67 and still counting

 

Click to enlarge and read the text.


 

Posted by Red Monkey at 8:58 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 25, 2006

Rushing to Conclusions

There are times when I just flipping hate people.

I was watching Michael J. Fox on The Actor's Studio a few months ago. At first I was impressed with how well his meds were working on his Parkinson's ... but it didn't take very long at all before the movement and jerking and shaking became extremely noticeable. And, he couldn't get all the way through the interview without having to stop, go off-stage, take his next round of meds and take a moment to walk and get things back under control again. Later I heard that while he was on an episode of Boston Legal, they had to completely shift the shooting schedule to catch his appearances at just the right moment. He looked completely rigid and I don't know if that was simply the muscle rigidity which builds during Parkinson's or if it was the product of an immense force of will to make the muscles stop tremoring.

Not surprisingly to people at all in the know, Fox (not to be confused with the Fox Broadcasting company) created the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research in 2000. Not surprisingly, he's talked frequently about stem cell research.

Not surprisingly, he's campaigning for some Democrats who support stem cell research.

Not surprisingly, Rush Limbaugh, who in my oh-so-humble opinion has absolutely NO right to talk about anyone else's medical condition EVER, spoke out against Fox. Okay ... speaking out against him is one thing. Rush doesn't like stem cell research and thinks it's evil, fine. He can think that. But coming out and saying that he thought Fox was only acting is absolutely reprehensible to me.

Let's just assume that the devastation caused by this disease is a fake. Let's make all those with Parkinson's into whiny little fakers when things start to deteriorate quickly.

Now, of course, Rush has backed off somewhat, however wanting to hold true to the course, he's now accusing Fox of just being a shill for the Democrats.

Right ... cuz the poor Parkinson's dude can't have his own thoughts and beliefs, right?

This, to me, is the worst of Republican party. I'm not saying all Republicans are bad or that they would all do what Rush has done. I'm just saying this type of hot air without facts ... this spout off at the mouth and think later ... is what's gone horribly wrong in the democratic experiment. And, actually, Democrats are susceptible to this as well, don't get me wrong. But in the stories I've heard most recently, it always seems to be Republicans jumping the fastest to the worst conclusions and spouting them as if they are facts.

I wish ... I wish that we could go back to that mythical time where the news was not about ratings and sensationalism. I wish that we would be presented with the facts instead of the "choice" facts and insinuations and opinion misrepresented as fact.

When I was a child ... the first time someone taught us the scientific method ... I was hooked. It seemed like the logical and grown-up way to think and behave. Research, define the problem, hypothesize, experimentation in controlled manner, draw conclusions based on the uncovered facts and observations.

The first time, as a teenager, that I realized that the whole of the adult world did not subscribe to this methodology, I was shocked ... grew ever more cynical ... and began to question adults ever more.

I wish we wouldn't alway rush to the bottom dollar ... to the sensational ... to the easy conclusions. I wish we'd critically examine all the evidence more thoroughly before making our pronouncements public. I know we're only human and sometimes we simply vent or spout off ... but particularly any public persona, be they talk show, news reporter, politician or even celebrity ... public speech from whomever should be more deliberate, researched, thought out.

comments/grr.gif

Posted by Red Monkey at 11:33 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 18, 2006

Locked Doors

After waking up at 3:30 a.m. this morning for no apparent reason other than I seem incapable of getting a full night's sleep right now, I went surfing blogs and found a wonderful, thought-provoking post over at: Looking Beyond the Cracked Window.

I've quoted a bit of it below ... and well, this is probably going to be another one of my novel-length posts. So if you're idly perusing and not wanting to think or get involved, you probably ought to scroll down to the post below this one.

I have been for years baffled by other people's ability to remember with such vivid detail, their youth. I have moments. Clearly defined moments. Yet I can not remember lengthy details of say a vacation to Hampton Beach or a trip North to Maine. Like so many appear to be able to do.
Early years? Pffft.
I see pics [of her childhood], I know I was there(the pic is evidence of that...duh), yet there is no emotional attachment to it.
It bothers me at times. Sometimes it feels as if there was no childhood. Then at the same exact time, I know I had a great childhood. Weird. (With the exception of my brothers torturing me)....
Having been very solitary(which is ironic I had lots of friends), I would pull into myself. In a room full of people, yet not really there. Self isolation. One would think, with all the thinking and questioning I did as child and throughout my life, I'd have recollection of it.
And with all the muddling around I do up there, rearranging those boxes, digging through them....I wouldve found the key to unlock some of them.
In my quest over the years to keep me secure, that included locking myself out at times. Pinkerton Security. Secure. Unbreakable. Impenetrable.
What is it I fear?
I havent a clue.
And to really put this entry in a twist? I kinda like it that way.
Why open a locked door, for no reason. I dont need to go there. Dont have a desire to do so. In not doing so, in no way effects my life.
Shhhh.....Don't say it.

Jod{i} got me to thinking about how I handle memory and childhood and locked doors. I love her post, what she's written, how it flows together. And part of what got me to thinking is that she and I are pretty much total opposites about this except for the fact that we reflect on it and think and question.

I remember huge chunks of my childhood ... back to when I was two or three. Of course, one of the reasons that I remember so much is becaues we moved a great deal when I was very young. Amarillo, Texas; Houston, Texas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Carmel, Indiana; Austin, Texas ... then I started kindergarten.

So when I described the floorplan to the apartment where I have my first memory, Mom was able to state that was one of the apartments in Houston. So, I was between 2 and 3 when I rolled out of my big kid's bed and slowly rolled down to the floor. I couldn't have had that bed for very long, because Mom had dragged some of our ugly vinyl dining room chairs to my room and faced the backs of the chairs against my bed in a vain attempt to keep me from hitting the floor. It didn't work, but it did slow me down.

I can remember being sleepy-tired, content, happy, and crawling off down the hallway to where Mom was sitting at her desk, presumably working on bills. The hallway was all dark, but Mom's room was bright and sunny and she had such a look of joy on her face when I crawled in to see her.

I can remember what was to be my first halloween of trick or treating "for really" at the age of four. My dad brought home one of those cheesy little mask and smock costumes that were so common in the 70s, in every drugstore, dimestore and TG&Y's. It was a little red riding hood mask and Mom had been working on a better cape for me. But when Dad put the mask in front of his face, I burst into tears and froze, rooted to the ground, terrified to move.

There are many, many other events that I remember in amazing technicolour detail.

I barely remember just two months after that halloween costume ... when as I went to put an ornament on the Christmas tree, I used all the dexterity of a four year old and managed to pull the tree on top of me. This is when we discovered just how allergic to pine/cedar I actually am. Apparently I broke out in hives EVERYWHERE the tree had touched me ... almost immediately. While I don't remember this very clearly, I do remember a few stop action scenes. Stretching to put the ornament on the tree ... admonishments to not let the ornament drop ... attempting to firmly place the ornament ... and then ... then I was swimming in pine needles, confused, scared and feeling more than a little bit lost.

I remember our trip to Disney World, to the Alamo, Sea World ... train rides to Grandma's house, long drives in Dad's mustard-yellow Pinto.

But ... where Jod{i} says she sometimes feels like she had no childhood and yet knows she had a great childhood ... I knew that as idyllic as most of my childhood seemed, I did not have a great childhood. By the time I was about seven, I knew my father had a problem with drinking. And I knew that caused him to behave badly and erratically at times. In fact, I can remember thinking that Dad was going to be in a LOT of trouble once the open container law passed ... and I was quite concerned about how we would transport our Dr. Peppers back home on those rare occasions we stopped at a fast food joint.

And then ... then, there's the locked boxes.

Pinkerton Security. Secure. Unbreakable. Impenetrable.

For all of the things I remembered then and remember now, there have always been parts of my childhood that I locked away in a strongbox and tried to throw the key as far into Balcones Woods as I possibly could.

And here, for me, is the really intriguing part. I both know and refuse to know what is in those boxes. While some people prefer to throw away the keys to those locked boxes and never open them ... my curse is that I cannot quit tampering with the boxes. I can't find the bloody keys to them anymore ... and I strongly suspect I know what is in each one.

And I should leave them alone.

But, you know, I was that little kid who couldn't leave the mostly healed scab alone, either. I have to pick it off, pick off the edge of the sticker and minutely examine what lies beneath.

I know that the box under the basement stairs holds some things that I was not old enough to understand at 6, at 7, at 8, at 9. By 10, I'd started a new box and tried shoving that one up in the attic. And I was so focused on forgetting what was in that box, that I only had a ghost of a memory of what was in the first one.

And to really put this entry in a twist? I kinda like it that way.
Why open a locked door, for no reason. I dont need to go there. Dont have a desire to do so. In not doing so, in no way effects my life.
Shhhh.....Don't say it.

Honestly, I wish I could say that, too. I wish those dusty old boxes would stay stuck in their corners and rot and moulder away until they were destroyed by time.

Instead, there's always some reason or another for me to go to the cellar or the attic and poke around ... and invariably, I stub my toe on those boxes. Those damn boxes that no matter how I pick at them, they won't quite open.

I managed to decipher some of the coded writing on the outside of the one in the attic ... and I think I've got a chunk of the combination figured out to the cellar strongbox.

I want to open them.

I dread opening them.

The locked doors of those boxes contain my missing pieces to explain the differences between the extreme disconnects from memory to memory and event to event.

They are locked for a reason. And, probably like in most horror movies, they should stay locked. Somewhere, someone in a theatre watching the movie of our lives is screaming at me that it's a trap ... just as I used to scream at Joe Hardy during the Hardy Boy Mysteries.

But like the intrepid detectives, I want the secrets out in the light, no matter how dangerous they may seem in the moment of uncovering them.

Locked doors.

Maybe this dia de los muertos I'll uncover my skeleton key.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:15 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

October 10, 2006

dancing on the edge

Something that came to me during a conversation with a dear friend ... reminding me that we all do this dance in our own ways now and then.

it's more fun to play with the knife blade than to make a decision
the agonizing and alive feeling
one little thrust ... one word
and it's the melodramatic end of the world as we know it
or
we could
we could put it away ...
          and then, perhaps agonize over could have beens
but the pain of playing there on the edge
that makes us both miserable and alive all at once

remember what it was like to live without the self-recriminations?
to live as the true self ...
you do remember that?

but now ... now
we're just dancing on the knife's edge

          so i should just plunge it in then

I would certainly recommend putting the damn thing away
putting it all behind us
but
    i'm not so sure we can do that
physically and emotionally exhausted and drained from all our other issues
and not thinking straight

so we're gonna do this that we shouldn't do
then punish ourselves for the rest of our lives
when the only thing we did
was to be human

we convince ourselves that we're trapped
and helpless
alone and weak
and when we're convinced of all of that
we spin our wheels
mired in the mud
and getting nowhere

looking behind at mistakes
ahead at what might have been
and then down to the mud
sure we'll never get out of this rut
and move forward

so we're haunted
by everything that led to this place
and haunted by everything that we could have once accomplished

uncommitted to action
playing on the edge of slicing the pain away
or putting the painful and pretty distraction away
and owning our own lives

dancing on the knife's edge
just to feel alive

Posted by Red Monkey at 7:21 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

September 3, 2006

Her Story

My mother is insane.

I say that knowing that my sister sometimes reads this blog and will probably disagree with me and will perhaps even be a bit horrified by my writing that. But I think of a particular definition of insane: doing the same thing over and over and over and over yet again and yet expecting different results.

My mother is insane.

She hides in her condo after work most evenings, terrified and disapproving of the world around her. She has recently made one of her periodic attempts to break that same pattern that she has played out so many times before. Unfortunately, she's going about it in the same way that she has before. Not so much examining her own self as condemning the behaviours in others which she thinks she sees ... which she fears she feels.

Everyone has betrayed her ... her entire life has been full of attempting to reach out and to love and then being betrayed.

Other eyes see her story in different ways. But what I'm writing today -- I think -- is how it has looked through her eyes.

I don't know what her first betrayal was. I'm not sure that she is capable and strong enough to remember that first betrayal.

In bits and pieces ... in fits and spurts ... she has related to me how her mother betrayed her. How fearful my mother was of having her first born child. She was terrified of that small, tiny creature. Afraid to do something wrong. Scared to death she'd damage that tiny life.

So she turned to her mother. And was abandoned. Through my mother's telling, her mother refused to help her learn how to deal with the new infant. Abandoned her alone with this tiny alien creature and ignored my mother's fear and paralyzing terror. Walked away.

She struggled to overcome her fears and nurture the baby. Four years later, as she awaited the birth of the second child, she rested assured that this time, she lived in the same town as her mother and would be able to get some help as she learned to cope with both a precocious four year old and a newborn.

This time, thought, her mother made plans to be out of town at some other family event. And this time, her husband waited out the birth of his second child in the bar across the street from the hospital. Where the first baby had been relatively quiet ... to the point where my mother suspected the baby was a candidate for SIDS ... the second baby was anything but quiet and perhaps even more at risk for SIDS, requiring an intensive hospitalization before the age of one.

And she was alone and abandoned with two children to care for. Her husband gave her no support. Her mother gave her no support.

And yet, she kept at both of these people who should have been her support. She kept reaching out to them over and over and over again, expecting different results, expecting that they would somehow miraculously change, that she would finally find the right words to make them see her fears and help her.

As we grew up, my sister and I, she and her mother exchanged long phone calls every Saturday morning ... occasionally Sunday morning instead. One week my mother would call, the next her mother would call. Yet, when my sister or I talked happily of Grandma, Mom would get this look of bitter frustration ... bitter disappointment ... sadness ... a little masked rage ... and utter confusion ... expressions of emotion that flickered so quickly across her face and through her words, I was never really sure what I was seeing until I was much, much older. Jealousy that we seemed to get along splendidly with the one woman she really wanted to connect with.

I don't know what the tension is between them. I don't know much about my mother's childhood except that she utterly idolized her father, adored him to pieces. And I know about the tension between her and her mother. I can make some educated guesses about that tension. But I won't do that right now.

Every friend that my mom had during her adult life ... at least so long as I was old enough to observe the pattern ... each one betrayed her. Some friends would last two or three years. Some last seven or eight. But she only had one close, female friend at a time. It was as if she could screw up enough courage to "put herself out there" once ... and that was it. And when the inevitible "betrayal," or difference of opinion, would come along, Mom withdrew into her shell and hid from the world once again.

It was an amazing pattern to grow up with. I would watch her, timid and yet yearning for human contact, yearning for some sort of affirmation from someone other than her own children. Creeping ever so slowly out of the house ... into a class of some sort, usually art. Cautiously making friends with one woman in the class ... and I would be so happy. She finally had another adult to talk to, things to do with herself during the day while we were gone to school. Something to distract her from the fact that her life revolved around cleaning the house for her two allergy-ridden children.

And then, I would hear the tale of betrayal again. Once it was a friend telling her in no uncertain terms that Mom needed to be less judgmental and cut her kids some slack now and again. Another time, a friend made the mistake of trying to get Mom to relax and take a real vacation. Another time, it was a horrible racial slur made against someone that Mom found to be a very good person. Some of the betrayals were certainly "real," whatever that is. Some were simply friendships that had become too close, too revealing. Terrified of having to look at herself and her life, she bolted instead.

I watched when she finally went to therapy ... she left any therapist who suggested that she needed to make some behavioural changes.

So, as I had known she would, she turned to the church. Another day, I'll tell of that betrayal. (And no, it doesn't involve any kind of Catholic priest scandal at all.)

And as I grew to adulthood, past the pesky quasi-adolesence of the 20s, I realized that all of this was a simple pattern.

Mom is in love with fear.

For whatever reason, it's a comfort to her. She's known fear for so much of her life, that she cannot function for any real length of time without it. She feared for years what would happen if she left her alcoholic, abusive husband. She feared what would happen to her when her eldest moved out of the house. (The fire of the devil she knew or the cauldron of living as a divorced woman?) She moved out with the youngest child, now 15, and struck out on her own. She lived with the fear of having no money now that she had no husband. She feared all men. She feared the power of her bosses. She feared that the eldest would reject her, so she both rejected and latched onto both children. She feared everything in the world around her. All those people, out to hurt her ... ready to offer a hand which would inevitably turn around and bite her.

And yet, she did the same things over and over and over again.

After all of this ... knowing much of the abuse and years of fear that she underwent while married ... why, and more to the point, how, can I say that my mother is insane? It is not because she has such a difficult time reaching out and trusting ... but because she thinks that she is reaching out when she is pushing others away. Because she thinks that she is listening to others when she is only thinking of herself. I don't say she is insane as a judgment ... it is a statement of fact. She continually believes in the same manner and expects that the world will suddenly conform to her. Unbending even as she attempts change.

And until I can learn a new way to reach out to her, it is insanity for me to try. Years of listening to her ... attempting to coach her ... attempting to strengthen her self-esteem ... bolster her confidence ... only to face derision and scorn masked as loving concern.

It may be that she has been betrayed and abandoned too many times for a relative to reach her at all.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:50 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 21, 2006

Compassion, Empathy

I've been there. Totally broke, credit gone, health insurance useless to help me pay the bills, and then, something else breaks or disappears and has to be replaced. For me, it was finding out that my cat had cancer. This was the kitten who imprinted as human and tried for the first six weeks that I had him to learn to walk on his hind legs "like everyone else." This was the kitten who followed me around like a dog, and was the sweetest, most loving cat I've ever known. When I was down and broke and just about hopeless and found out that he had to either have a leg amputated or be put down, I ran through the house looking for something, anything, to sell to raise the money for his surgery.

I found my old Viewmaster reels and a Viewmaster from the 40s or 50s (I think). I listed them all out, some of them rather old and hopefully worth money. And I put a note at the end of the pre-eBay "auction" listing on a newsgroup: Please don't flame me if I've put a too-high starting bid. I'm trying to raise money for my cat's surgery to remove the cancer from his leg."

You know what? No one bid on those Viewmasters. Instead, I got donations. Someone Fed Ex'd me a crisp $100 dollar bill. Checks came in over a week's time. Brenden got his surgery and lived another five years before passing of old age.

E.J. Knapp needs some help. He's lost his job and had to go on disability. His retirement savings is gone. He's gonna lose the house. But now, the bank's taken his car and he's got just about a day left to raise enough money to save the car so he can make it to doctor appointments, therapy, and just keeping food in the house. Trust me, the mass transit in New Mexico ain't great, so when he says "the transit system in this town is all but non-existent" he ain't kidding.

He's selling short stories for $2 a pop. He's got under $150 left to raise ... if he doesn't raise it by August 23, 2006 (it looks like) ... then the car is gone and he's pretty well screwed. He doesn't want charity. He wants to give you something tangible in return.

Help him out ... direct link to the short stories being offered.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:51 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 20, 2006

Thank You

I want to take just a minute to thank each of you who commented on the "Suspicions Confirmed" post, whether through comments, email, IM or otherwise. I've been sitting here staring at the screen and attempting to re-read the comments left publicly, the emails sent privately. And I find I'm at a loss for words. (Doesn't happen all that often, obviously.)

To be honest, I expected to find not only support offered, but I had also prepared myself for what I thought would be the inevitible trolls screeching to tell me this was only False Memory Syndrome. (Another, competing link here.) And for me, the damage done by the therapists and people who did falsely accuse others of abuse, led to even more self-doubt about my own suspicions. I refused to say anything definitive about my abuse until I was sure, positive and without any reasonable doubt.

There's so little hard evidence about how the mind works, really. It's a complicated bio-chemical place that we just can't see how it works. Which naturally, leads to discussions of whether depression meds are necessary or if ADHD really exists or not. You know, the Tom Cruise insanity. (My favourite is well, then why didn't people in "olden tymes" have it? Umm, they did ... but they were considered eccentric or even mildly crazy for not being able to calm down.)

At any rate, as a thank you to those who also deal with this crap ... and for those who don't but want to understand, I give you a quote from a criminal justice textbook.

When a child is abused, her mind cannot handle what happens to her. It's too much. Even if the mind remembers some of the abuse, it will bury most of it. It may remember the events, for instance, but bury the emotions. Basically, what the mind does is take the memories, put them deep in the unconscious and build a wall around them. The mind also pulls the memory apart. It stores the different parts of a memory -- the event (the visual picture of what happened), the mention (like the terror or the sexual feelings), and the identity of the perpetrator(s) and puts them in different parts of the mind. Some parts are easier to access than others are. There is a "layering effect," with the worst memories at the bottom.

(quoted in Sex Crimes: Patterns and Behavior by Stephen T. Holmes and Ronald M. Holmes, Sage Publications Inc., 2002.)

Also, a reminder that psychologists have done plenty of more "hard scientific research" on trauma and memory in the last few decades, particularly with victims of car wrecks and the traumatic events of war. These are cases in which the victim often experiences at least some form of amnesia and in which external evidence confirms the bits of memory or the actual recovered memories.

As to my "strength" or "courage" in posting about this ... it doesn't feel that way to me. Maybe it's the fact that I'm an oldest child and brings out the protector in me ... but I simply feel it's my responsibility to speak about it. I feel a duty to others who struggle with these issues. A duty to let them know they're not alone. That the mind is an odd place. That there is hope.

Of course, I also think that all of the emotions surrounding this issue are dormant at the moment, which makes writing about it easier.

So ... to those of you who felt moved to comment or had the strength to comment - and especially to those of you who simply couldn't speak - thank you. Just ... thank you.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:53 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 14, 2006

All Clear for Another Year

Just got back from the oncologist. It's been five years now since I returned home from my bone marrow transplant due to a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease. Thanksgiving will mark 7 years from the initial diagnosis.

All clear.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:01 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

August 10, 2006

Suspicions Confirmed

WARNING:
This entry should not be read by everyone. If you're just surfing the web through BlogMad or you've come here for something funny or short or a nice little diversion, this is not a post you want to read.

This is a post about "childhood trauma" as one hospital calls it. If we're being blunt ... and I am rather blunt in the post itself ... it's about incest and having to deal with its aftereffects as an adult.

You want fun, I got fun stuff below. The rant in "Not News" is funny. "Diversions" has, well, it has great diversions for you.

Click the link if you want to follow through to a very serious post. It's not for everyone.

This post contains blunt language (but not profanity). It's gonna be to the point and no longer dancing around any proverbial bushes. I am, for the moment, through with that.
If you're not in a balanced place mentally, don't read on.

If you have been through childhood trauma, you understand the triggers warning. If not, consider this a hint of what's to come.
triggers include: the word rape, allusion to cult, discussion of self-injury

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

For the first time, I can really say it.

My father raped me.

I've never said that out loud before.

You see, for years, I suspected. First, while I was a teen still living at home, I suspected that he had the capacity for rape. I told myself I was ready for him and that if it ever happened, I would call the police. I would have him taken away. I would rescue the family. There were times when I would sit in my room in the late night hours and will him to "just try and start something" because I was determined that I would finish it. And it would end with him in prison.

When I moved out of the house (and some part of me was stunned that it was so easy to do ... that part of me was positive he would kill me before he'd let me leave), I began getting glimpses. I feared that "things" had happened. I had suspicions, but I didn't really have anything I would call a solid memory. So I distrusted them. I got Courage to Heal. I read large chunks of it. Then tore the book into chunks.

I wasn't ready.

I read books. Obsidian Mirror. Courage to Heal. Courage to Heal Workbook. I read others' stories. When Rabbit Howls. The Broken Child. Sybil. I read the horribly tacky "true crime" books dealing with abuse. I read the FBI "report" on cults.

I watched movies. Boys Don't Cry. The General's Daughter. Anything I thought might possibly trigger something.

I wasn't ready.

I was frustrated. I wanted to remember. I knew there were things locked up somewhere in my brain and I was determined to root them out. I tried writing. I tried counselling. I tried just looking at pictures and concentrating on that time period.

I wasn't ready.

I was really freaking tired of people telling me I'd remember when I was ready. I was tired of being scared of "something" having happened. I was tired of walking and talking like a duck but not *feeling* like I was a duck. I was tired of reacting to my partner's reasonable and loving requests for physical love like I was a five year old. I wasn't five. I was thirty-five and this was getting OLD. I felt like I was working and working and working on this and getting nowhere at all.

My partner begged me to try counselling again, gathered names of some good people and I did go back. To someone who knows what she's doing, this time. I wrote a 10 page list of bad things that had happened to me as a kid that I remembered ... interspersed with things that I was very not sure were real memories. And as I started reading them to the new therapist, she stopped me very quickly and pointed out there was no emotional connection between what I was reading and the events I was describing.

Well, yeah. It happened a long time ago. They're over and done with, why get upset about it now?

I wasn't ready.

I've been talking to this same T. for a bit over two years now, I think. Maybe it's three. "Be patient." "Trust the process." "You'll remember when you're ready." Yeah, I was ready, all right. Ready to scream.

Gradually my affect started to change during sessions. That nice solid outer coating of veneer covered in coats and coats and coats of polyurethane was beginning to crack. I was able to get closer to the emotions than I had gotten in a long long time.

But I still wasn't ready.

During this time, I returned to an old, old coping habit. I cut. I tried several of the strategies that I found and they worked for a short time. But eventually, I backslid. Luckily, a few "cat scratches" are more than enough for me. Still, it was a concern, to say the least.

My partner is about to finish her bachelor's degree and is looking at seminaries for the fall of 2007. We went to visit one in California ... and then one in my old state, Texas. In fact, we stayed in my hometown, and I was happy to get to show off all sorts of places that had been important to me while growing up. We drove by my dad's house a couple of times, and I even paused the rental car long enough to take one fast picture of the house. We visited with my mother, who was for the most part, sane the whole time we were there.

When it came time to board the airplane and head back to my current state, I wanted to just fall apart. I wanted to go home, to see my house, my dogs, my cats, my stuff. But Texas is truly where my heart is.

Something was building.

I don't know what changed during that trip, but something surely did. I was nearly suicidal the week after we returned ... and for no discernable reason. Things got a little better after a trip to my trusty T. Then, they slowly started building again.

Last Friday morning, after my other half left for work and just before my alarm was set to go off, I had a real flashback. I was awake, just laying in bed and waiting for the alarm to go off, too tired to really get up just yet.

I could remember laying in my bed as a youngish teenager. Sound asleep. And having the covers ripped off of me. What happened next was very sudden. Very violent. Very real to me.

My father raped me.

This wasn't some misplaced love. This wasn't a substitution of daughter for wife. This was about his needs, his power, his need for my fear, his sick obsession.

I was horrified. I was terrified. I was sad. I was resigned. I was surprised. All of those feelings from the time of the original event. In the here and now, I was simply numb and shocked. The "proof" I'd wanted all these years ... I'd just gotten my "movie." (Though, really, it wasn't really much like a movie in terms of detail and sequential events.)

I got ready for work, went through my day, almost forgot about it. I don't know what I was doing that triggered me to remember it, but I'm glad I did remember it. I'd hate to have lost that again. The next few days were not particularly good. I emailed my T. and with very little detail and even fewer words, simply told her that I'd had a flashback and that I'd see her at my next appointment in a couple of weeks. No need to schedule an in-between appointment.

Naturally, she called me in anyway. At that point, I had not fully admitted to myself what had just happened. I couldn't say what dad had done. I couldn't talk about it to my partner, I just said that i'd had a flashback.

But I did talk during the therapy session yesterday. For me, I talked a lot. And when I left, I don't think I said it aloud at that time ... but when I got home and was IM-ing with a friend, I wrote those words for the first time:

My father raped me.

I've been oddly numb since then. It's not an unexpected numbness, but it's odd nonetheless. It's like a kid probing at the new shape of their mouth after losing a tooth. It doesn't hurt ... it's just different. And I've been repeating those words to myself all day. Walking down the hallway at work. Walking out the door to go home. Walking through the house.

My father raped me.

And while much of it is still murky and unclear ... I *think* "things" began when I was about four; I *think* there was a ring of "buddies" at one point; I *think* there was something in the woods outside Austin ... while there are many things that are still unclear, I no longer feel completely blocked. There is no "maybe he did, but maybe he just made me feel threatened." Or "maybe he did or maybe I was just imagining things."

I wasn't ready before. I thought I was. But I was scared of what I would discover. What I would feel like if I knew. I was scared of making false accusations. I was scared that I could block something like that so completely out of my mind for any length of time. I was still scared last week. But finally, I was ready. And, for the time being, there is certainty.

My father raped me.

And you know what?

I survived. And ... I survived remembering it again.

Posted by Red Monkey at 12:57 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

July 3, 2006

Legislating Discrimination

So, a few weeks ago, I hinted that the local paper had interviewed me and I was waiting until the article came out before talking about it.

Here's the back story:
The city council of the town I live in decided to add an ordinance which would ban discrimination against gays. But before they voted on the issue, some of the right-wing extremists got wind of the proposed ordinance and started pitching a fit. After starting a site (nospecialrights.net) which condones discrimination and, in fact, spreads mistruths or misconceptions, the local HRC decided that there should be some stories in the local paper which talked about why an anti-discrimination ordinance might be helpful and why it's not "special rights." Why what we're asking for is simple, basic, civil rights. The right to get and hold a job on our own merits and not on our supposed sex life, the right to housing, the right to not be harassed just walking through town.

First ... the EEOC does not list "sexual orientation" as protected from discrimination. Included are: Age, Disability, National Origin, Race, Religion, Sex (including pregnancy and marital status, but not orientation).

So, the HRC was looking for people who were willing to share their stories of discrimination "on the record" and ... here was the kicker ... with their names attached to the article.

Fearing discrimination ... fearing retaliation ... fearing vandalism against home and vehicle ... fearing violence against their person, most people declined to be interviewed by the local paper.

My partner and I underwent a two-hour interview with a new-ish reporter at the local paper regarding the commonplace discriminations that happen daily in our town. The article came out today and you can find it here:
South Bend Trib Article
And, yes, this is our print newspaper. Yes, the grammar and the organization are really, truly that bad. As a former teacher of writing, I'll probably critique the article's style and grade it here tomorrow ;)

My hope is that the more we speak out, the less any legislation will be necessary.

Legislating against discrimination often simply causes a bubbling over of hatred and violence and a certain segment of the population digging their heels in and saying, no way, not me, not ever, ain't gonna "like" "them people."

Legislating against discrimination, however, gets the conversations out in the open. Even when it creates more overt violence, the ultimate results are more honest than the hidden hatreds and hidden fears.

Legislating against discrimination is not the perfect solution. But, at the moment, it's the only viable option we have to attempt to prevent discrimination.

I'm hoping the ordinance passes next week while I'm on vacation.

To be honest, I'm also hoping that no one vandalizes our house while we're gone, too ... bad timing to have an article like this come out ... and then leave ye olde homestead undefended.

Posted by Red Monkey at 9:04 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

June 22, 2006

Good Luck! :)

I've talked about some of my struggles here for a while, but it's time to switch gears just a tad. My little sister (yeah the one who used to be afraid of ants) decided to leave Texas with her husband and they were going to try their hands as musicians in one of the big cities. It's going as slowly as most people warned them it would, but they're doing okay. My sister has a HUGE job interview this afternoon with an absolutely incredible charter school in a traditionally depressed urban area.

Everyone, please, send out good thoughts to them. Right now, they're both in between gigs and teaching jobs are pretty hard to come by despite their really outstanding qualifications. Things are getting a little desperate for them and I just thought I'd try to send them some extra goodwill.

Here's to my little sis scoring a beautiful job in the inner city.

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:55 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

May 23, 2006

Language

I've seen a lot of U.S. blogs talking about the current issues with legal and illegal immigration and the constant complaint that immigrants do not speak English. I'm not going to get all political on this because this is not a political blog. However, I am a teacher, so I just want to take a moment to explain something that a lot of folks are apparently not aware of.

The United States, at this time, does not have an official language. Most countries have a law or edict which declares one language "the" language of that country. One story goes that our Founding Fathers decided to leave it open since we had so many immigrants from so many different lands and this would further encourage the melting pot of America. The Federalist Papers were written at least partially in German ... one suggestion was to use Hebrew as the official language since it was purportedly closer to the Garden of Eden. Lots of stories, but clearly one thing stands out: English was not the legal, official language at the time of the Constitution.

Indeed, the fact of the matter is that there is no one legal language for the United States. Sure, if we go by tradition, English is "the" language of the U.S. And if you want to be understood in most places in the U.S., you should know English.

However, legally, there's no need to speak English. In fact, many of our ancestors did not speak English upon arrival. I know half my family spoke Lithuanian instead of English. Further back, on the other side of the family, they spoke Scots-Gaelic. Today, all of their offspring speak English instead of those "mother tongues." So, why is it that as a country right now we seem to want to force everyone to speak the same language and ignore a tradition of letting the older generation get by ... and letting the younger generations be the bridge between both languages.

Well, on the one hand, just because it's always been done "this way," does that make it right? On the other hand, our legal system is based on just that theory (the theory of precedence).

Honestly, I have more than a small streak of the anarchist in me, so I like the mix of languages. But, I also have a practical side which says, hey, we're too large an entity any more ... and too regulated ... to get away with a hodge podge of languages in which our laws might not be understood.

At this time, the Senate has passed two separate bills trying to somehow come up with a solution. It's still a bit of a mess since there are two bills and they'd have to be combined into one in the House before anything could be settled. But this congressional debate has been going on for at least the last 10 years without any resolution, so I'm not holding my breath just because it's being considered again.

Basically, I'm not coming down either pro or con on this. I can see both sides of the argument. I'm a bit of a history nut, so not having an official, national language appeals to me on one level. But I'm also a pragmatist who thinks it would be easier to have an official, national language.

I just want to take a moment to point out to those who believe that immigrants (legal or otherwise) are somehow not speaking the national language are jumping the gun a bit. We don't have one (yet). We have a language which is common to most areas, but there is not a federal, legal reason for anyone to learn English. Certainly a pragmatic reason to learn it! But not a legal one.

For now, though, I'm going to enjoy the multi-lingual signs in English and Chinese and Spanish and French depending on where in the U.S. you are. I hope we don't ever lose that. :)

UPDATE: comments closed because of spam ... if you want to leave me a comment, please email it to me using the contact me button ... I was tired of deleting spam comments on this particular entry and closed the comments, but I'll manually post them for you if you want to continue the discussion.

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May 17, 2006

LiveSTRONG

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LiveStrong

Five years ago today, I was preparing to go to IU Med Center in Indianapolis for a bone marrow transplant and just finishing grading student portfolios for the spring semester. I hadn't yet read Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike, so I didn't quite realize that he grew up the next town over from me, although I vaguely remembered reading about him in the local papers and my mom asking me why I didn't do something cool like that. Of course, my answer was, because you won't let me ride my bike more than six blocks away, but that's a side issue.

All I knew was that I thought I had beat the cancer with the first go-round of chemo. Even though I was undiagnosed for two year and had just hit stage IV when I was finally diagnosed (by a MedPoint doctor, no less ... my regular doctor missed the cancer for two solid years ... he never ran a blood test), I was sure that one six month round of chemo was enough to knock that silly Cancer Lite out of my system.

I was stunned when it came back. I was supposed to go to an awards ceremony for one of my students who had won a writing award the evening I got the news that the Hodgkins had returned. All I could think about the bone marrow transplant was what I knew from having read Eric waaaay back in junior high. Bone marrow transplant did not sound fun.

However, the bone marrow transplant procedure had changed a lot since Eric's day and I drove the nurses crazy ... because I actually felt good and had more energy than someone on the BMT ward is supposed to have. I walked ... paced actually ... around the ward five or six times a day. I wanted OUT. I wanted to go outside ... it was summer. I wanted away from the hideous hospital food.

It's been almost five years now since the bone marrow transplant. Five years and my life has changed so much ... not because of the cancer, but just because life is life and always changing.

As far as I'm concerned, SuperChemoGirl has kicked cancer's butt. Here's to the five year anniversary ... and the ten ... and the 15 and the 20 ... and the 30 ... the 40 ... the 50 year anniversary.

People ask me all the time now ... how are you doing? How are you feeling? You all right?
And I'm always confused when they do. Because despite my LiveSTRONG bracelet, I forget that I even had cancer.

SuperChemoGirl
LifePost

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May 15, 2006

One Less Stone

I have been told by numerous people that I ask for special rights. I do not ask for "special" rights. I simply wish that I did not have to be afraid, when everyone else around the lunch counter is discussing what they did with their families over the weekend. Will someone ask me about what I did? When will they get around to asking me the inevitable questions about the ring on my left hand? Is it okay for me to mention in passing that A and I took her mother to the Build-A-Bear Workshop for Mother's Day? Should I play the pronoun game? All of this for fear of losing my job.

When I articulate these fears to those who tell me I ask for special rights, I'm usually told, "Oh, you can't be fired for that." The truth of the matter is that within most companies in the United States, I can. I don't ask for much. I ask to be as safe as is possible in this world ... I ask to have the chance to prove that I am a hard worker like many other people.

In South Bend, Indiana, the city council is currently considering adding an ordinance banning discrimination solely because someone is gay. We're not talking about quotas. We're not talking about having to put up with someone incompetent. In fact, this particular ordinance even has a specific disclaimer allowing churches to be exempt from this ordinance, so that those churches can comply or not according to the dictates of their faith.

Unfortunately, people like Patrick Mangan from nospecialrights.net (I won't give him the status of a link, but you can copy the URL if you're curious) have made horrible accusations about gays. One person at a Common Council meeting even went so far as to claim that all gays were disease-ridden, HIV-spreading heathens.

I hope the ordinance prohibiting discrimination against gays passes. It would be a relief to not have to completely pull away from everyone at work for fear one person will discover and be horrified with my home life. It would be a relief to be able to go into the emergency room with an asthma attack and know that even though I don't have the breath to explain what's happening, the nurse will listen to my partner and will get me the treatment I need instead of telling her to wait outside because she's not "immediate family."

The rhetoric against gays goes too far. To say that gays are disease-ridden, that myself and others like me willfully choose to be immoral and to force our immorality on others - these are the daily stones thrown at me, regardless of whether or not the people throwing stones are without sin themselves.

It would be nice were there one less stone on the pile.

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April 24, 2006

Plank in the Eye

Most of the time, I don't think about being "that" ... about being one of "those people." I'm just me and I don't have time for labels and boxes and I never did. In fact, in junior high, when Izod shirts were all the rage, I got a big alligator applique and had Mom sew that onto one of my shirts. It was my joke to all the preppy kids who just lived and died by whether your shirt was Le Tigre or a real Izod Lacoste. Frankly, most of mine were logo-less Bar Harbor shirts. And of course my patently fake Izod ... I actually had a girl who very kindly took me aside one day to inform me, somewhat nose-in-the-air, that my shirt was not a "real" Izod. It was difficult not to laugh.

I suppose, really, I simply don't understand judging people on things that don't seem to matter much. I don't get why being black should make a difference in how I treat someone. Maybe if they dress "urban" I might respond in a different fashion, try to adapt a little to the culture that person is familiar with ... or at least try to remember which words might mean different things to her than to me. I don't get why I should be suspicious of someone with the last name of Florez hanging around my El Camino. I don't get why I should ask the dude with slanted eyes to do my taxes for me. I don't get why I should be scared to leave my kids with a guy with a lisp and a limp wrist.

I'd really rather get to know the people before i go making decisions. Now if the dude named Florez is sleazy looking and acting nervous or otherwise suspicious, then I probably don't want him near my El Camino or my VW bug.

I really don't get why it would be okay to fire Florez for being Mexican just because "those people don't like to stay in one place too long anyway ... they're all migratory." Let me guess, they like it that way, right?

Or why not selling the house to Huey Freeman is okay because "those people like sticking together and there's none of his kind over here."

The question is, how do we keep these prejudices from happening in our society? If we had a very small society with similar values, it could be done by simple means. You do something everybody else in town dislikes, they'll talk you out of it. But we don't have a very small society and we don't have similar values after some of the "top dogs."

We've come to the conclusion, in most western countries, at least, that we should legislate these types of things. And we've gotten such very mixed results from it.

I don't like the fact that each state has a different set of non-discrimination laws. Nor do I like that various towns and cities have their own ordinances ... or that companies have their own policies which might cover even more than the local laws (and thus that company has voluntarily made itself more responsible than legally necessary). I don't like the fact that these laws list out various "sub-groups" of people.

We ought to be able to pass a law that simply says, hey, stop discriminating against people for stupid stuff.

The problem, of course, is who defines "stupid stuff"?

Is it discrimination to not hire a convicted child molester to work as the cook at a day care center? It probably is ... but it's also good sense to me.

Is it discrimination to not hire a homosexual to work as an elementary school teacher? It certainly is ... but it also seems like just as good sense to some people as the previous example.

My question is why?

A child molester has harmed children and so I'd be awfully anxious to let one around my kids. But what harm is a gay going to do to a child? I don't understand the logic here.

Pedophiles are most commonly "straight" men, not gays. Actually, if we were a little more honest, pedophiles are not straight in any way. A male pedophile prefers children to women. He might be married, attempting to hide from the world what he really wants, but he's not really a straight man.

I got an email from my church earlier today. Calling us to action as our conscience dictates. Our town is debating adding sexual orientation to the non-discrimination clause for city employees. The majority of our church is solidly behind this move because we don't feel we have the right to judge. Our church is not a "gay church." It's a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) church ... one of the many mainline protestant denominations struggling with the issue of homosexuality.

Back in the late 80s or early 90s, that church was actively looking for a segment of the local population which needed ministry. They did several studies on what the bible really has to say about homosexuality. They researched it, studied it, prayed about it. And this congregation of people in their 50s and 60s and 70s decided to reach out to the gay community because they didn't see any biblical reason not to do so. They saw no reason to condemn folks who loved a monogamous partner of the same sex.

Today, we got an email from the church, telling us of what the opposition is saying about the so-called "special rights" being bullied out of the town council by the pushy activist gays. The website cited frightens and depresses me.

The last paragraph of their site is as follows:

This is not an issue of tolerating what people do in the privacy of their own home. This has become an aggressive attempt to force the moral acceptance of homosexual acts as normal on the entire population. That is why every citizen with Faith should actively oppose these attempts to legitimize homosexuality and the attempts to punish anyone who dares to disagree with these radical homosexual activists. At the same time each citizen with Faith should be learning how to reach out to those who have become addicted to homosexuality and who are suffering the consequences of this dangerous, destructive lifestyle choice...

I had a friend recently tell me a joke that he thought I would find funny. He was rather surprised that I didn't find it funny at all.

A father watched his young daughter playing in the garden. He smiled as he reflected on how sweet and pure his little girl was. Tears formed in his eyes as he thought about her seeing the wonders of nature through such innocent eyes.
Suddenly she just stopped and stared at the ground. He went over to her to see what work of God had captured her attention. He noticed she was looking at two spiders mating.
"Daddy, what are those two spiders doing?" she asked. "They're mating," her father replied. "What do you call the spider on top?" she asked. "That's a Daddy Longlegs," her father answered. "So, the other one is a Mommy Longlegs?" the little girl asked.
As his heart soared with the joy of such a cute and innocent question he replied "No dear. Both of them are Daddy Longlegs." The little girl, looking a little puzzled, thought for a moment, then took her foot and stomped them.
"Well, we're not having any of that gay shit in our garden." she said.

And all I could think of after seeing that joke on my screen was the utter depression ... how do we stop a moving train? How do we reach not only that little girl, but the people that don't understand why that's not a funny joke, why it's a harsh and sad reality for so many.

How do we as a society stamp out prejudice? Does legislation do any real good? Or does it create bitter feelings and martyrs on both sides?

How do we move beyond judgement of petty disagreements and focus on what really matters?

And for those who think that homosexuality threatens the sanctity of marriage, that asking for a few civil rights equals special rights, what's your reasoning? Can we keep the bible out of it since the U.S. supposedly has a separation of church and state? (Because not all religions follow the bible, and yet are still considered legitimate religions in the U.S.)

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April 23, 2006

Learning People

Quite a while back I wrote the first part of this story. I said I'd continue it, and began writing this post back in June ... it's still an unfinished piece, but I thought I'd share it today anyway. Make sure to read the beginning first, though.

So, after the trip to Disney World and watching Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents, I was ready to go back to school just a few months later. I was starting second grade and I was a little nervous my first day. Our school handed each teacher about 30 students at random levels of learning and development and this year I had been moved to another class different from most of the kids I'd had in my class the year before. And after my Disney World experience, that was much more scary to me than the fact that I also had a black teacher for the first time.

One of the first days of school, my mom walked me into the building. Now, we lived several miles away from the school on the far north side of Austin out by the quarries. Most of the kids in my neighborhood rode to school in a carpool and the parents complained all the time about the inconvenience of having to gather a bunch of crazy elementary school kids and deliver them to school -- although I think picking us up was probably worse.

When we walked in one day, there was a folding table set up just inside the building with a posterboard hanging from it. It said "Stop the Busing."

"But I thought we wanted a bus!" I exclaimed to my mom.

She frantically tried to get me to shutup.

"But why? I thought you were tired of taking me to school." I was trying to whisper -- you know, the kind of whisper actors use to reach the back of the theatre, but still feels like a whisper? That type of whisper that seems to be the specialty of every little kid.

Well, my response relaxed the tense parent behind the table. And despite Mom's promise to explain it all to me later, it wasn't until years later that I figured out what busing these parents wanted to stop. And it made me sick. Every student at that elementary school that I can remember was white. We had some latino kids, and we had a couple of kids who got to sit down during the Pledge of Allegience (the whole Under God thing -- don't start, that'll be another post later and you can scream about it then). Of course, we lived in Texas, so there were lots of latinos everywhere. Enough so that I didn't realize that Mexicans (like my best friend who lived down the street from me) were another "race." I didn't realize that some white folk didn't like Mexicans or latinos of any flavor. I thought my friend would be extra-popular because she had a great tan. Unfortunately, I said that in front of Mom and she was horrified and had to explain the whole Mexican "issue" to me.

Two weeks into the school year I was told that there was an opening at the Catholic school and was shuttled off to "shop" for my uniform.

Was it because busing appeared to be imminent? Was it because my teacher was black? Was there really a "sudden" opening at the private school?

And what I didn't understand then or now was this: if we were so religious as to send me to a Catholic school, how Christian was it to be that way to other people? to be so scared of them and for no reason at all?

I don't remember any black kids at the Catholic school. I had a latino teacher, but didn't see any black teachers there.

I asked my Mom once why she didn't want me to be part of busing - either bused to another school or a school where others were bused in.

"Because I knew that someone would tease a kid - a black kid call a white kid something or a white kid call a black kid something - and you would be right there in the middle of it, defending someone. I didn't want you to get hurt."

Well, she probably had a point. I would have been. I didn't understand that type of "teasing" and I always tried to make friends with the underdogs and the kids that no one else would take to. And I never knew when to back down, so I probably would have gotten the heck whupped out of me.

But you know, the deal is that none of this stuff changed how I felt after that smile at Disney World.

Those two events ... the trip to the Hall of Presidents and the sudden turnaround about busing us to school ... shaped my life more than I could have imagined at that age. The two events together solidified something that I had been struggling with for ages ...

I learned that I could not trust my parents.

Now, before someone screams, let me explain that a little bit further. It wasn't just because I realized prejudice was wrong ... it was because I was finally starting to see through some of the mixed messages I was getting from them. Mom would tell me that black people were the same as white, but she'd also lock her car doors if she saw a black person walking along the street. She'd tell me "you can be anything you want to be" and then tell me I couldn't be a cub scout or an indian guide. She'd poke me in church during the scripture on obeying your parents, but then she'd give me direct orders to disobey my father. And, honestly, Dad was giving me the same mixed messages.

At that point, I came to the conclusion that there are good people and bad people in the world and a lot of shades in between ... but you could not figure out which people were to be avoided by how they looked. My father looked like a great businessman in his fancy suits. He looked like Gerald Ford, enough so that in the late seventies, women in the grocery store wouldn't believe him when he said he was not the ex-president. It didn't really matter that he was white or that someone else was black or tan or kind of yellow.

You learned more about people by comparing what they said with what they did ... and, of course, by watching their eyes. And Dad's eyes scared me. Mom's eyes seemed somewhat blank and empty. I began to distance myself from them.

That wound up saving my life.

Well, that and the bookmobile.

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April 3, 2006

(un)Written

I started out this series of posts on Struggles because I saw the movie Jim in Bold at my church a few weeks back. Jim Wheeler was a teenager who ultimately took his own life because he simply couldn't cope with what his life had become. As I was watching the movie, I became struck at the similarities in Jim's life and my own life as a teenager. The most fascinating difference to me, though, was that Jim apparently had a very good home life � his trauma was over the fact that he couldn't really cope with being "teased" about being gay.

For me, it was my home life.

But in both cases, it was a secret we felt compelled to keep, some distant something that was wrong, that made us different from those around us, and was not something to be talked about. And on top of that, it wasn't something we could figure out how to change.

To complicate matters for me, I had those memories that littered my room, things like the episode with the stuffed animals � and then I had these fleeting, ghost-like fears that I could not explain � those things that fear for my safety and the chemical trauma wipe would just not focus into clear images for me. Things in my room, monsters in the closet. (And now maybe you see why one of the early posts in this series was The Closet ? )

I would spend hours locked in my room as a teenager � well, I didn't have a lock, but you know what I mean � listening to records (yeah, remember actual vinyl?), writing the beginnings of novels, sometimes deigning to do my homework. Once in a rare while, I'd go full-blown teenager and yak on the phone for an hour.

Since I didn't have a lock and I was a teenager, I was of course, obsessed with figuring out a way to either lock my door or at least set an alarm on it so that I knew if my parents were spying on me. I developed elaborate booby-traps for my door, but the best was the simplest of these: I balanced an action figure on my doorknob and put something under the doorknob that would make noise when the toy fell.

That was while I was awake. Every night when I went to sleep, I listened for footsteps. I was sure that the "bad guys" (whoever they were) were going to enter the house at any moment and I had to practice "constant vigilance!" if I was going to save the family from these unknown murderers.

I would hear odd noises in the house at night � sometimes overhearing my parents' quiet arguments � sometimes hearing the slap � sometimes � sometimes �.

And then the chemical wipe comes in. Convenient isn't it? Can you see how living with that constantly, this fear of an unknown with so little substantiation that you can trust � how can you ever be certain that your situation, is indeed, "not good"???

I said that I wrote a lot of novel beginnings during this time period. I saved everything (almost everything � I know I destroyed one story � more on that in a bit). I have long recalled that many of these stories were about some kid who acted as detective or cop or something along those lines. I started to call them Hardy Boys stories, but really they weren't anything like my beloved Hardy Boys. First, the main character might have a best friend, but that best friend was certainly more of a Chet, the bumbling "fool" who is simply a kid. The main characters were always highly logical and completely fearless kids.

I dug some of those up the other day, just out of curiosity. And I was stunned by what I found. As it turns out,

    Staring at the blank page before you
    Open up the dirty window
    Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find
    Reaching for something in the distance
    So close you can almost taste it
    Release your inhibitions
    Feel the rain on your skin
    No one else can feel it for you
    Only you can let it in
    No one else, no one else
    Can speak the words on your lips
    Drench yourself in words unspoken
    Live your life with arms wide open
    Today is where your book begins
    The rest is still unwritten

As it turns out, staring at the elementary school print in the college rule notebook was very illuminating to me. I found multiple stories that had to do with the main character being abducted � being held against his or her will (I write a lot of male protagonists and not too many female ones). I found either outright reference to situations of sexual abuse or very obvious veiled fears of the same.

I found more parallels between that which I suspected happened to me and the stories I wrote.

Only you can let it in � no one else can feel it for you � no one else can speak the words

And of course, the conundrum here is that I've been a storyteller since I was four when I first got an entire nursery school to sit around me while I wove a tale for them.

But what fourth grader writes so consistently about not just abduction, but specific tortures, not the general ones usually thought of at that age? Some general stories, sure � but every story talking about either horrible parents or parents who were dead and the child had to deal with everything alone and abandoned. By sixth grade the stories changed to kids in mental hospitals who couldn't remember what had happened to them.

No one else can speak the words on your lips � drench yourself in words unspoken.

You see, when you live through that kind of trauma, it all gets shoved way back in the back of the darkest closet in your mind.

Open up the dirty window � let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find � reaching for something in the distance � so close you can almost taste it � release your inhibitions.

It's hard to reach back into that closet and pull those things out because they've changed since you shoved them back there. They're like bits of fax paper exposed to heat � you know the blackened paper once held the history but now you can only make out the vague details � like scraps of parchment half crumbled in a clay jar.

And what does any of this have to do with the movie Jim in Bold?

We all, at some point or another, find ourselves treading water in the middle of the ocean, alone and without sight of land. We can give up and drown � we can strike out for land and miss � we can strike out for land and hit Hawaii � or Mexico � or Easter Island. We don't know where we're going and we don't always know where we've been.

Feel the rain on your skin � no one else can feel it for you

But if we don't share what we've been through, if we don't talk about it, write about it, communicate it in some way then we never really find out how similar we are even though our specific circumstance might be very very different.

And if we only dwell in our own indecision and consternation without really feeling the rain on our skin, without digging the parchment from the clay and trying to piece it all together, we crumble and fade away � half lives, half-lived.

The rest is still unwritten.

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March 22, 2006

Back of the Mind

Well, after that last post, I hardly know where to start this one. I suppose I should start with the concept that I left with last time.

    These were the things on the surface. These were the things that I told other kids, other adults about.
    There were other things that I didn't talk about ... in fact, that I pretty much physically could not utter aloud. Or write, when I finally learned to do that.
    There were those things out in my room ... the stuffed animals incident.
    And then, there were things that I sequestered away in my closet, with the door firmly shut.
    So, much later when I found the whole Cub Scouts story funny and an early indicator that I might need to be coming "out of the closet," I laughed. As far as I was concerned, that had been so obvious from such an early age, there was nothing that had ever been hidden.
    A harder closet to come out of was to admit just how bad the abuse had been.

So, I had things happen that even as a kid I thought were probably not good parenting choices, but which weren't technically abuse as far as the books in the library could tell me. If you look at the bare facts, getting rid of a major allergen is good parenting, right? The problem was always in the way things were done. The devil's in the details, I guess.

The things that happened which were truly terrifying, not just to a kid, but to adults as well, those things were harder for me to hold onto. Here's what happens:
When we have a truly stressful and fearful situation, our brain floods with a variety of chemicals. In that mix is cortisol which, to our best scientific knowledge at this time, has the ability to effectively erase details from the brain. Think about a highly stressful and fearful -- a highly traumatic -- event as a type of brain virus which wipes portions of a memory out of our internal hard drives. (This information comes from Dr. Colin Ross' website.) However, it only wipes the details, not the event itself.

What this tends to mean is that we have no concrete details to help prove that something happened, but we're still affected and traumatized by the bits of memory and emotional memory that we do still retain. Think about a Viet Nam veteran who can remember pieces of a particular firefight, but not really remember exactly what happened. Or, think about a victim of a bad car wreck ... sometimes they remember the whole thing, but often they remember very little in terms of concrete details (if, in fact, they recall the wreck at all).

Example, I know someone who drives a truck for a living. A few years ago, he was driving on a country highway and a local decided not to stop at a stop sign ... having the right of way on the highway, my friend was doing 55 or 65. Tried to stop, but of course, it was far far too late. He plowed into the driver's side door on the station wagon and carried the vehicle quite a ways, naturally killing the driver of the other vehicle. Sometimes, he can remember the panic he felt at seeing the other car in the way and knowing there was nothing he could effectivley do to stop the wreck. Most of the time he remembers nothing except being in the ambulance later on.

He knows, both from his own memory banks and from other people what happened. He does not have any clear recollection. He does not have any details.

He, to a certain extent, is lucky. There were witnesses to what happened. It's clear the wreck was not his fault. And, those witnesses and the police investigators can all tell him exactly what happened (if he wants to know those details).

A child who is traumatized sometimes remembers the emotional experience. Sometimes remembers bits and pieces of details. Sometimes they are able to remember the whole thing. Rarely, it seems, do they remember enough concrete detail suitable for prosecution. "Beyond a shadow of a doubt."

Which, of course, lends creedence to the whole false memory syndrome counter-argument to abuse allegations. And that is a very real catch-22 situation. Kids make things up sometimes. Sometimes adults convince kids of things that aren't true. Sometimes no one wants to believe that Mr. and Mrs. GoodCitizen could be that depraved without wearing a neon sign that all the other adults can see.

Why am I going on about that? Because for me, this is the biggest impediment to my believing and accepting those things which happened to me which I never spoke about as a child or a teenager. I have spent my entire adult life and most of my childhood looking to remember "that one detail" which would, finally, concretely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, convince me that "these things" had really happened.

So, I recall those things "left out in my room." I can talk about the stuffed animals. I can talk about the time Dad set the backyard on fire ... on purpose ... to cure me of my fear of fire. Mom telling me that I couldn't run track because of my asthma, but that I should dust the entire house instead. And a slew of other things, some of which were technically abusive, most of which simply rode that line of bad choices.

The things that did more damage are the things that the chemicals have attempted to wipe to the back of my mind where I can't find them.

I started out these posts by talking about the Cub Scout bit for another reason.

I enjoyed trucks, GI Joes, action figures, Star Wars stuff, Matchbox and Hot Wheels, LEGOs, playing in the mud, building forts and playing with the garter snakes and lizards in the backyard from the time I first saw those things. I thought fighter planes were the coolest things ever the first time I saw one.

So, I just want to clear up one very common misconception ... and I'm gonna be real real blunt about it.
I'm not gay because my dad raped me at age 4.
My "gender" was more stereotypically masculine than stereotypically feminine from the very very beginning. Now, even that didn't mean that I would automatically turn out queer. Like I said earlier, there are men who love cooking and shopping and are straight ... there are women who like working with their hands and like wearing make-up and are straight.

I don't know why I'm gay and I don't particuarly care why. It seems like it was a genetic thing to me, but I'm not a scientist, I haven't analyzed my DNA. I do know something about psychology and find my particular case quite difficult to attribute to environment alone.

And, really, I don't want to get into the nature/nurture debate over this anyway. Call it a pre-emptive strike since I've heard it discussed so fervently and so often.

What I really want to talk about ... next time ... is just what it's like to live with memories blurred by trauma, knowing there's no way you'll ever know the "exact truth."

Posted by Red Monkey at 10:15 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 20, 2006

Closets

And no, this probably doesn't refer to quite what you're thinking it might refer to.

(I had a really funny line here about it being safe for work, even if you're a nun ... but while surfing BlogMad and writing this post, I hit a website that crashed my browser and I lost everything that I couldn't get a fast screenshot of. *sigh*)

So, from the last couple of serious posts, I know I've made it sound as if joining the Cub Scouts was the most important thing ever, and strictly speaking, that's not really true. It's just that the whole issue with the Cub Scouts really uncapsulated a whole raft of issues which nicely demonstrate some of the challenges my mom and I had as I was growing up.

The real battles, though, came from Mom's addiction to the rules.

You see, as an infant, Mom was quite scared that I would be a victim of SIDS - Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Now part of that fear was simply Mom's terror over being a new mother. Part of it was something more "real." At three, I was finally diagnosed with both allergies and asthma which helped to explain why I often had such a difficult time breathing as an infant. In fact, I was allergic to a whole slew of things: grass, cedar trees (including pines ... think allergic to Christmas tree before people had fake trees), dust, dogs, cats, tomatoes, soy, peas, green beans, cottonwood trees ... and, of course, everything scored a 4 out of 4, meaning I was highly allergic to all of those things, not just mildly annoyed by them.

So, at the age of 3, I started allergy shots once a week. I got a "nifty" dry powder inhaler for the asthma ... which meant that I had to put a little pill into the inhaler and then suck real hard on it ... the little fan blades inside the inhaler helped break up the medicine and hopefully I'd inhale enough of it to forestall an asthma attack. That's a lot for a little kid to remember to do correctly!

My mom, wanting to do everything just exactly right, tore the house apart to make it more hypo-allergenic for her little girl. This meant that my mattress and box springs were covered in an allergy bag (which also made it crinkly and noisy), soon, though, the "bag" came off the mattress because I couldn't sleep for all the noise. For some reason, Mom didn't think that sleeping on the floor was good for my dust allergy.

She set up a cleaning regimen to make sure that the house was as completely dust-free as she could make it. She vacuumed the house on Monday and Friday. Sheets were washed every Thursday. The house was dusted constantly.

And, of course, something had to be done about my room.

*          *           *

According to my baby book and to pictures of me as a little squirt, I had at least three stuffed monkeys that I adored, several dolls, and a host of other stuffed animals. I particularly remember having a panda bear that I adored at age three.

Stuffed animals collect dust.

Not long after my diagnosis, during Mom's crusade to rid the house of allergens, we went for a drive in the car. I was strapped in to my toddler seat in the front of the car (this was before airbags and such, so every mother put their toddler shotgun to keep an eye on us). And Mom started bringing out all of my stuffed animals.

I thought I had the coolest Mom in the world. I was going for a ride with all of my stuffed animals and dolls. I'm happily singing a little song or babbling out the window and chatting with all of my toys who are residing in the back seat of our massive Delta 88 boat of a car.

We pulled up to a strip mall and I paid no real attention. Until Mom began removing all of my stuffed animals and taking them in to the Salvation Army.

Stuffed animals collect dust.

I was allergic to dust.

The rule was, get rid of the stuffed animals or wash them weekly (which was going to get expensive as they probably wouldn't survive that many washings for long).

I frantically twisted around in my little strapped in seat and fought with the buckles. I had to save at least my panda bear (who I'd already managed to wiggle out of the bag he was in). I tried shoving him under the seat, but Mom was thorough and hiding him did me no good.

I don't care how you try ... you can NOT explain to a three year old why "all" of their toys have to be given away. Now, you might get away with this if the toys disappeared over the course of a few weeks. Sneak into the kid's room at night and start snagging a few of the least played with stuffies and have them "disappear" like some mafioso ... have the kid pick out some stuffed animals to give away. Anything to pare the herd down with as little notice as possible. I mean, almost all kids go through the trauma of having toys outgrown and given away, but it doesn't have to be a complete shock to the system.

When we got home I was inconsolable. I ran through the house, desperately searching for any stuffed animal. Nothing.

I asked Mom about this incident years later and she was surprised that I remembered it at all, but she defended her decision to rid the house of stuffies in the way that she did. I pointed out to her that she could have gathered them while I was sleeping and perhaps put them in the trunk so I couldn't see what she was doing.

"I didn't think it would matter to you."

"Why couldn't you have left me just one?"

The answer was completely unexpected, even though I had long since become accustomed to her odd twists in logic.

"Because I knew your dad wouldn't quit smoking, and I didn't want to, either."

You see, the doctors had gone over a whole list of things that needed to be done in the house to help improve my health. Get rid of dust-catchers had been one thing, cleaning the bedding more frequently another, twice weekly vacuuming another ... and quitting smoking was another. Now, this was 1971 or so. No one was quitting smoking just yet.

So Mom's solution was to do absolutely everything the doctor said, absolutely, fully, to the complete letter of the law and courting OCD as she did it ... except for the smoking. That they continued to do, chain-smoking until I was in college. Then, finally, Mom was able to muster enough willpower (and, to be perfectly fair, it wasn't until the appearance of the Nicorette gum that she thought she'd have the support) to finally quit. It wasn't until we found a doll made of rubbery plastic, Baby Tender Love, that I got any kind of doll again ... and only because she could be dunked in water and bathed along with me every night.

From that early, defining moment on, I hid any toy that I really liked.

Later, when I was old enough to understand it had been done for my health, I still questioned her method of getting rid of the toys. And I think leaving a three year old one stuffed animal would probably not have killed me, either.

These were the things on the surface. These were the things that I told other kids, other adults about.

There were other things that I didn't talk about ... in fact, that I pretty much physically could not utter aloud. Or write, when I finally learned to do that.

There were those things out in my room ... the stuffed animals incident.

And then, there were things that I sequestered away in my closet, with the door firmly shut.

So, much later when I found the whole Cub Scouts story funny and an early indicator that I might need to be coming "out of the closet," I laughed. As far as I was concerned, that had been so obvious from such an early age, there was nothing that had ever been hidden.

A harder closet to come out of was to admit just how bad the abuse had been.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:49 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 15, 2006

Be Yourself

One of the things I brought up in yesterday's post was:

    Eventually, my mother was able to convince me that I was not allowed to be a Cub Scout. Some already highly suspicious part of me, though, still suspected that this was simply one of Mom's crazy rules and not something "real."

You see, even by the time I was just five years old, I was already at war with my family. Not because I wanted to be, but largely because I was told at school and at home to "be myself," and yet, my mother never seemed to really like that self that I tried to be true to.

Now, look, that's an old, old story that many of us have been through. There's always a terrible struggle in every family about the time that a child hits the age of two or three and begins to truly assert a growing independence and a personality all their own. And like all such stories, mine certainly starts at that point, but the conflict was much deeper than the "normal" growing pains of a family.

I was a really self-reliant child, even given the developmental idiosyncrasies of a first-born child. My mother, never much of a morning person, was astonished to discover early on, that even before making the migration to the toddler's bed, I would wake up in the morning and play in my crib, quietly and alone for hours (before my stomach woke up and demanded some breakfast). I was soon climbing out of that crib so that I could further amuse myself before Mom had to make an appearance to attend to some baby-hood need or another. So, Mom put a babygate in my doorway to keep me out of trouble.

Resourceful, at two, I pulled my little blue kid's chair over to the gate, unlatched it, got into the cabinets in the bathroom and rooted around for something fun. Luckily I only discovered a jar of Vaseline and not something poisonous. With my newly discovered booty, I went back to my room, closed and latched the gate and proceeded to climb back into my crib and promptly cover my self, bedding and walls with the Vaseline.

Mom only figured out what happened because I neglected to move the little blue chair away from the gate and doorway.

My self-confidence and will to do knew no real bounds at two or even at three and four. If I couldn't do it on the first try, I simply looked around, gathered what tools I thought I needed and tried again.

The battles, of course, were between that child's will and determination and my parents' desires to keep me safe.

At least, on the surface that was the battle.

The secondary battle that almost always happens in any family is how difficult a parent finds it to allow the child to develop his or her own personality and not become a carbon copy of the parent. Sometimes this is an easy task because it's obvious the child has a very strong-personality. Sometimes it's a harder task because the parent sees the child going down a road of which they don't approve or are afraid of.

This was our primary battle � keeping me safe was always secondary to "reining in" my desire to be myself.

The battle surfaced in odd ways when I was small � there were terrible fights about what I would wear, how my hair would look, what I could play with, who I could play with � and I didn't understand why there were so many rules until I was much, much older.

Example. My hair was very very fine, very prone to tangles and I had a pretty sensitive scalp. So, the use of the extra fine tooth plastic comb every morning was something I dreaded beyond all else. At three, I was hiding the comb as soon as I got up in the morning � once Mom was onto that, I would snag it before bed at night and hide it. But somehow, it was always found and the dreaded combing would begin, generally with me in tears very quickly. My mother assumed that I just didn't like it, and I could never seem to make her understand that it really truly did hurt. A lot.

By the time I was four, I was lobbying to have it cut short. Less hair, fewer tangles, less pain, no screaming and crying � obviously this was the best solution.

My mother, though, had a lot of rules. One of them was that women could not have short hair. I pointed out the women on the TV who had short hair. That tennis player � Billie Jean King. This did not make my mother feel better at all. In fact, it made the issue much worse. At four, I had no idea why!

There was a litany of other rules as well. Girls do not play with cars � at least at home. At nursery school it was "okay," but we would be buying no cars. Girls played with Barbies, not Mego superheroes � and certainly not GI Joes. Blocks were "okay," but LEGOs were not. Piano was all right � the drum Grandma got me was not (and for more reasons than just the noise factor that every grandmother seems to love to perpetrate onto their kids). Dad buying me a Snap-Tite model of an F-14 airplane was Not Good � but then again, he bought me something, so Mom couldn't quite make up her mind about that one.

Suffice it to say that my gender was not that of the pink and fluffy girly-girl and Mom was simply devastated by this. She did everything possible to try to convince me to like pink, dolls and dresses, but it simply never took.

Now, I knew other little girls who did not wear dresses, had short hair and played with cars and Barbies, so I knew that I could not possibly be the only girl in the world who felt this way. So, Mom and I battled frequently.

And, when she finally told me that girls could not be Cub Scouts, well, frankly, I assumed that she was simply making up another one of her "crazy" rules.

So, I did what I always did ... tried to find out for myself. I asked the kids at school and I was shocked to discover that none of the girls knew any girls in the Cub Scouts. I asked one of the boys in our neighborhood who answered with the disdain of most five-year-old boys. Something just short of "Hell no, are you CRAZY?"

I certainly felt that way for a while.

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:55 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 13, 2006

That Blue Uniform

You can be anything you want to be.

Is there any bigger lie we tell kids?

I learned very early on that this is not strictly true.

In kindergarten, the big thing was what "group" you were going to join. Now, I don't mean the popular group or the nerds or anything like that. No, were you going to be in 4-H? How about Indian Guides/Indian Princesses? Brownies? Cub Scouts? Boys & Girls Club? What were you going to join?

My first choice was 4-H because you got to be outside and do things with animals. My mother quickly nixed this as "too hick." My second choice was Cub Scouts.

Now, this may take some explaining as I rarely talk about my gender or my sex on my blog. First, just to get things straight, sex and gender are two different things, to my way of thinking. Gender refers to a societal construct and there are far more than two genders in the human race. At one extreme you might have the 1950s-style Barbie-housewife. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. Then you might have a woman who enjoys working with her hands, and still enjoys tending her children and her husband. Likewise, the other extreme might be a man who's the Iron John man's man, banging a drum and his wife and hunting during the fall. And you might also have a man who enjoys fashion, how fabrics look, and also enjoys hunting and taking his wife out to the movies.

Then you can start shading in all the variations in between. Straight, gay, stereotype and those who might feel like a complete contradiction to those at the extremes. That's gender for you: how we perceive how others are fitting in to our perceived social roles of male and female.

Lecture over. :D

So, back to the Cub Scouts and being anything you want to be.

Yeah, there's just this little detail that kept me out of the Cub Scouts. The Cub Scouts were for boys. Brownies were for little girls.

I stormed, I wailed, I screeched about "you can be anything you want to be, you SAID" all to absolutely no avail at all. I could not be a Cub Scout.

Now, I wanted to be a Cub Scout for a few good reasons and few umm, well, childish reasons. One, Cub Scouts got to do outdoors-y things (this was a constant battle in my life � I wanted to be Kit Carson and explore the Wild West � I was crushed that I was over a century late to that party � then I found out more about Kit Carson later on and � well, that's another story for another day). Also, Cub Scouts got to build things like the little soapbox derby cars. How cool was that? Build it, paint it with cool flames and then RACE it! What could be better, I ask you?

The silly reason was, well, they had the best uniform out of all the groups I'd seen. That blue and gold? Classy, man, classy.

Eventually, my mother was able to convince me that I was not allowed to be a Cub Scout. Some already highly suspicious part of me, though, still suspected that this was simply one of Mom's crazy rules and not something "real."

So, I decided to be an Indian Guide. Of course, there were a couple of problems with this. First, it was Indian Guides and Indian Princesses, not just Indian Guides. Girls were supposed to go to meetings with their fathers and be princesses and boys were supposed to go with their moms and be guides. Not a bad set-up really, but certainly not one in which I would ever fit in real well.

First, Mom tried to talk me out of it because "You know your father �."

He was rarely around in the evenings, working late instead. Actually, I was beginning to suspect, even at five years old, that he was not working all of those hours. Not when he would often come home after ten, loud and obnoxious and violent. And I'd been around long enough to know that this was how he acted after a Saturday of beer-drinking and yard-work.

So, I made my pitch directly to Daddy, who agreed that he would make the organizational meeting with me. We were all essentially ignoring the Guide/Princess bit. I, for one, was utterly convinced that once I was in the group, I could certainly talk them into letting me be a Guide instead of a Princess. I mean, come on, did I act like a frigging princess???

Pins and needles the night of the meeting.

Bed in utter tears. Mom tried to console me, but at the same time, she just kept making excuses for him and "you know how he is."

You can only be who you want to be if those around you let you and encourage you to be who you want to be.

Posted by Red Monkey at 6:04 AM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 12, 2006

Common Ground

So, I said I was going to get all serious and stuff.

After watching the movie Jim in Bold at my churchthis past Friday night, and, after talking with various folks online and at church, I thought I would share more of my story with my readers than I have before. Imagine my surprise, after already coming to this decision to see as the meditation for the morning in our church bulletin the following words:

Everyone of us has a story, a sacred story �. People do have religious experiences in the heart of ordinary life �."
From Windsong

Now this is not, actually, going to be some weird religious post, so don't read into those previous sentences that I'm gonna preach to anyone or try to convert anyone. That couldn't be further from the truth. To be honest, I have a tendency to close a blog, website or book that starts preaching to me when I didn't purposefully go out seeking something about religion or beliefs. It just so happens that church is where I saw the movie and then got smacked with that quote.

K � 'nuff said.

I do think, though, that it's pretty obvious that we all have a story. There's a reason, there's a multitude of reasons that we think and believe and act the way that we do. And, so many of us feel so alone in our experiences. We hear, time and time again, about people who didn't know there was truly any other way of life than her husband beating her � or the husband who truly thought that wives were supposed to nag and work the man near to death � or the kid who thought that all moms were drunk � or that all dads were crackhead thieves. We've all run into times when we feel like our boss is the worst ever and there's no way we'll be able to get another career or job or that � even worse that there's really nothing better out there.

And yet, the more people share their stories honestly, the more we wind up connecting to each other and learning that one, we're NOT alone. That our experiences may not be exactly the same, our situations might, in fact, be quite different � but there's still this sense of connection and familiarity that we find tying us all together instead of separating us.

In the movie, Jim in Bold, we hear about a young man who simply can no longer find a way to balance the way he is and the way those around him see him. He kills himself despite the honest and earnest help that his family and friends try to give him. Further along in the movie we hear a young man talking about how he felt like he was in the middle of the ocean and all he wanted to do was to swim to shore, to solid ground. But, since the ocean was all around him, he was unsure which way the shore was � picking a direction to swim might very well mean that he was actually swimming further out to sea and further away from land beneath his feet. And so, he just kind of treaded water, stayed in place, afraid that any direction would be the wrong direction.

It's so very easy for us to do that.

So, while the experiences that I discuss over the next few posts may not be something you've experienced directly, there's a good chance that we can connect on some level through what we've learned or felt from other experiences.

Because even in our differences, we're more alike than we think. My hope is that as I share with you, you'll respond in the comments not with argument, but with bits of your own story. Sure, there's going to be plenty to argue with � I'm as opinionated as the next person, and if you disagree, that's fine. But I think even in our arguments we're going to find some similarities and some common ground on which to stand.

And maybe our conversations will help someone pick a direction and find their own ground on which to stand.

Posted by Red Monkey at 3:31 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble

March 11, 2006

Coming Soon

I went to see a movie at my church Friday night, which was conceived and filmed by three north American teenagers. In 1997, a young man named Jim Wheeler, feeling alone and despairing, took his own life. These teens took Jimmy's poetry and art across the United States and listened to other teenagers talk about their lives.

One of the most poignant moments for everyone in the audience was when one young man discussed how he had been like Jimmy Wheeler. How he felt like he was in the middle of the ocean and all he wanted to do was to swim to shore, to solid ground. But, since the ocean was all around him, he was unsure which way the shore was � picking a direction to swim might very well mean that you're actually swimming further out to sea and further away from land beneath your feet. And so, you just kind of tread water in place, afraid that any direction would be the wrong direction.

With that in mind, I'm going to begin telling bits of my teenaged story over the next few weeks � so that maybe those folks who are afraid to swim to a shore they can't see will gain some sense of direction.

I guess I'm just warning folks that things are gonna be mostly serious around here for a while, so be ready. ?

Posted by Red Monkey at 4:14 PM | Struggles | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble