What Scares You?

I had a bad dream last night. At the end of the dream, I found a rat in the trunk of my car. I live out in the woods – rats are a common thing, and in real life, I’ve discovered that there’s a mouse living in my cupboard. It’s chewed through a bag of brown rice, and I’ve found the little mousy turds. I’m still angry about it.

Anyway, this rat in my dream was a) enormous, and b) entirely unlike a big rat. Imagine something the size of a rabbit, but with long reddish-brown fur with white spots like a fawn. It had a long, furry fox tail, and when I opened the trunk of the car, it jumped out and ran into the woodpile at the side of the house. I could see that tail shivering. I got down on my knees and shone a flashlight into the woodpile, and I could see its black eyes shining back at me. But it didn’t have a rat face. Its face was more expressive, like a dog’s face. I freaked out, because it looked scared, like it knew that I wanted to set my dogs on it. “Oh no,” I said. “Oh yes,” it said back.

And then I woke up.

Rats and mice don’t scare me, but the thing in the dream was terrifying. Why can I have dreams about my own death (I have that one frequently), about war, chases, etc., and none of it frightens me, but one little rat and I’m undone? I’ve also had terrifying dreams about being a kid in school and having a broken leg and having someone leave me. That one haunted me for decades.

I’ve read Jung and books and books and books on dream interpretation, but they all suppose that things have the same meaning for everybody. For instance, everyone says that flying dreams have to do with personal power and our confidence in our ability to overcome obstacles. On the other hand, there’s no online interpretation for the fact that in my dream, the way to fly was to mix absolutely (to the molecule) equal amounts of creamy and crunchy peanut butter, and to eat the resulting mixture from the body cavity of a winged man. What does that say? And does it help to know that in real life, I absolutely despise peanut butter? I can’t think that the peanut butter part is common to everyone, although one online source says that peanut butter suggests difficulty in communicating. It doesn’t make a distinction between crunchy and creamy.

I remember all my dreams, and some of them have become the basis for stories I’ve written. One of my friends has even said that she suspects that the life in which I know her is not my real life – my real life is the one I have in my dreams. If that’s the case, I’m at even more of a loss as to what to do with that rat.

Who You Gonna Call?

The last time I was at the hairdresser, my stylist was talking about her landlord. She lives in what she describes as an “adorable junior studio,” but it does have its share of problems. She’s had to do a lot of cleaning and fixing, including replacing the locks. She said that she’s petitioned her landlord to make these fixes, but even the other tenants in her building have told her that appealing to him is useless. She called him a slumlord.

It got me to thinking about my house. I think I may be a slumlord. The problem is that my only tenants are me and my family. I’m perpetually overscheduled, and it’s easier to just learn to work with the things that are a little bit broken, a little bit cluttered, a little bit sketchy.

A partial list:

  • there’s a broken dishwasher sitting on my back porch
  • along with a broken toaster oven
  • and a DVD player that doesn’t work
  • and a elliptical trainer that finally conked out
  • and my stationary bike that only just died (despite how it looks, I exercise a lot)
  • the door of the cabinet in the guest bathroom has a broken hinge and it’s just hanging there
  • same with the bottom door of the linen cupboard
  • the utility sink in the laundry room has a hole in it
  • there are two tiles missing from the corner of the kitchen counter
  • the porch railings need painting
  • the planting boxes from the porch need cleaning out and replanting

This is just the big stuff that annoys me daily. What’s the most annoying bit isn’t that I’m on tap to fix this stuff, but I can’t do it myself, and there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know how to do. The hinges that have failed are the really complicated, fiddly kind, and I don’t get them. I can’t load the exercise equipment into the back of my truck by myself in order to take it to the dump.

This is really the paradox of modern life. We have dishwashers and vacuum cleaners and washing machines and garage door openers – all sorts of labor-saving devices. All this saved labor is supposed to translate to saved time – time that milady can spend sunning her dainty knees by the pool, etc. Except that Americans haven’t done that. Americans have taken that extra time and filled it up with more work. And I am, in that respect, very American.

I guess at some point I’m going to have to put down my work – my manuscripts, my trips to the city to fix up another house with its own problems, my work helping my kid with her schoolwork, etc. – and start fixing some things around here. Either that, or I stage a rent strike.

Accessory After the Fact

Hair is an accessory, like a belt or shoes. Most people don’t wear the same belt or shoes every day, so why would you wear the same hair?

I started dyeing my hair when I was a kid. I was dating a guy who bore a marked resemblance to Ron Howard. He was dumb as a stump and didn’t have the ambition that God gave a grasshopper, but he had the most beautiful strawberry-blond hair ever. After I kicked him to the curb, I realized that I didn’t need him to have access to lovely Titian locks. It was then that I first turned to the embrace of Miss Clairol.

Strawberry blonde, chocolate cherry, black, copper…first I went through all the natural colors. But then, after I hit 40, things took a more interesting turn. When my grandmother died in 2002, I started dyeing my hair black. But in 2006, I started adding fire-engine red. And then blue. And then green. Think Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Then I shaved my head. When it grew back, I went entirely green. Or blue. Or purple. Or some combination thereof. I shaved it again and as it grew back, I went leopard print. Platinum blonde with a black streak. Now, a platinum mohawk with pink leopard print sides.

My hair as of the beginning of March 2012

I used to wonder why every freak on every bus, at every bar, on every airplane seeks me out and shares their alternate world view with me. But, if I'm honest with myself, I can see why they might believe I share their unique views.

Tuesday, a friend who saw the new do for the first time said “I would be afraid that people would laugh at me.” I told her that I’ve never been laughed at, and another of my friends laughed at the very idea of my being laughed at.

I have to be honest: never, in all of the years I’ve been dyeing my hair, have I ever thought “What will other people think about this?” The first time I shaved my head, one of my co-workers (at the time, I worked at a large company) asked me “What is your boss going to say about it?” I told him that I had no idea, and I didn’t much care.

I’ve always believed that other people’s opinions are none of my business unless they choose to share them. The great thing about that philosophy, is that it dovetails nicely with human behavior. From the time I got my eyebrow dots in 2008, I realized that people’s reactions tell me everything I need to know about them.

People who hate the way I look, people who judge me as stupid or crazy or otherwise lacking, they write me off. There’s no good telling me that my style is terrible, tasteless, offensive, etc., because I am obviously not a receptive audience to that message. Those people say nothing to me, and I never interact with them. The self-select out of my social circle.

Those people who admire it, and by extension admire me for doing it, will mention it, but they always qualify it with “I could never do something like that.” They’re paralyzed by popular opinion, but they somehow wish they weren’t. They want the vicarious pleasure of associating with someone who isn’t constrained in the way they feel themselves to be constrained.

The last group are the people I’ve come to think of as “my tribe.” They may not have the same tattoos, the same dye jobs, the same piercings, etc., but they do share a similar trait: none of them worry themselves about what other people think. They make art, they found businesses, they create grassroots social movements. They see the badges of my opinions and they love them.

I’m proud to be one of them. Or even just to look like them.

Hanging On/Letting Go

Yesterday, I mentioned to my therapist that I felt guilty about having stepped down from the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries. I produced their first-ever annual report, I took the lead in re-imagining their website (the new, less-sucky website debuts soon), I took part in re-thinking the relationship between the library and the Friends.

But then I started grad school (December), I bought a house that needs an entire new kitchen (January), I moved my mother from Phoenix to San Francisco (February),  my husband went back to work (February). While I’m all for doing good in my community, I can’t feel good about it when it’s at the expense of taking care of my own family.

My therapist told me about a woman he knows who used to be married to a friend of his. She left his friend for a man she worked with. They moved from a relatively unpopulated state to San Francisco, where she rose to be one of the most powerful people in her profession in the entire country. He said that she wouldn’t have thought twice about pulling out of anything that didn’t suit her, and she wouldn’t have wasted time feeling guilty. He described her as powerful, but also ruthless, uncaring and bitchy.

I’ve often heard that people with lots of power are assholes. That the way to acquire and keep power is to stop caring about the feelings of lives of other people. So, in a way, I could view my guilt as a sign that I’m a good person, that I care about the fact that, by stepping down from responsibilities I had taken on, I’m effectively foisting them off onto someone else, which ultimately isn’t very fair.

But frankly, I don’t think I’m that good a person. The truth is so much less flattering. The fact of the matter is that, from the day I accepted the responsibilities, they were MINE. I got the fun of dictating how things would go. I got to pick fights with people with the self-righteousness of I’m Getting Things Done. I got all the acclaim once those things were done, because they were done well. I owned my shit, and I am not good at sharing.

Perhaps that’s it. I’m not guilty because I’m a good person and I recognize that I’m causing inconvenience to others. It’s more like I’m feeling guilty because I realize that I’m being a selfish 2-year-old and my superego has caught me and scolded me for being a Very Naughty Girl.

I’ll figure it out before my next therapy session. Mostly because I’m sitting in my room here on Time Out until I do.

The Good Old Days

I often find myself thinking about/arguing over how modern life is different than ancient life, and whether it’s better or worse. Modern life is full of mindless violence, out-of-context sex, artificially engineered diseases, inverted food foams…It’s no wonder modern people look back to times they thought of as simpler. But there’s not a single popularly-romanticized era that didn’t have its own problems that were arguably worse than any we have today.

The Paleolithic period, popularized by the Paleo diet, promises and end to acne, autoimmune disorders, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and any other chronic degenerative disease. It supposes that prehistoric man lived in a veritable paradise of wonderful health and harmony. But the average lifespan of a human living 10,000 years ago was roughly 35 years for men and 30 for women. They were subject to hookworm, malaria, and occasional anemia, and women often died in childbirth. Worst of all, accidents like broken bones, deep cuts and infected teeth killed people slowly and (I would imagine) painfully in a way they don’t now. Can you imagine dying from a blood infection brought on because you’d cut the bottom of your foot on a rock and then had to keep trekking? If you can, keep it to yourself.

Ancient civilizations like Egyptians, Mayans, Incas, Celts, Anasazi are full of amazing technologies and interesting art and science that lead people to insist that they had knowledge that we have since lost. Possibly wisdom gained from extraterrestrials. But all of those civilizations had catastrophic wars with their neighbors, and illnesses common to large populations living in close quarters, like tuberculosis, were common. Slavery was common in ancient civilizations, often a consequence of war where the conquered group became slaves to the conquerers. Childbirth and infancy were still perilous, and infection continued to carry off the wounded.

Perhaps you’re a fan of ancient Greece and Rome? Well, in addition to the invention of philosophy and politics, they saw the rise of patriarchal societies that treated women as property. Near-constant warfare (made easier and more efficient by inventions like the stirrup and teed saddle) and more crowded living conditions, always a fertile breeding ground for disease, were abetted by (in Rome) lead in the famous Roman plumbing that is thought to have contributed to the fall of Rome.

The Middle Ages? Well, they weren’t called the Dark Ages for nothing. More war. More disease. Education reserved only for the rich and the Church. Women’s rights enjoy a brief resurgence, but childbirth and infancy are just as dangerous as ever. Improvements are made to warfare (like the castle, muzzle-loaded cannons, and the codification of battle strategy and tactics), but not so much to medicine. And let’s not forget the plague.

The Renaissance may have seen the emergence of amazing developments in art, sciences and medicine, but it also saw the rise of European Imperialism, bringing with it genocide with both weapons and diseases.

I could go on and on, but the point is that the evils we have now – intolerance, political intrigue, war, fear, anger, stupidity – have always been part of the human landscape. There is not a single period in human history in which people have enjoyed perfect health and harmony, despite what people may wish to believe about their favorite historical period or culture. I don’t care whom you idolize – they had wars and diseases and if you had been part of the 99%, you would have been not only a good deal more poor than you are now, but you would likely have died not only earlier but a good deal less comfortably.

And in fact, people now have a demonstrably higher standard of living than ever before in history. Better education, more knowledge about healthcare and the impact of things like basic hygiene and innoculations, better methods of distribution for nearly everything mean that even poverty looks much wealthier than it has at any time in history.

What I’m trying to say is that we’re not special. We’re not smarter than our ancestors, we’re not more civilized. We’re also no less hostile, no less fearful, no less angry. The one thing that we are, and that our children will be after us, is more efficient. If we manage to wipe out humanity, it will be because we’ve spent all of our thousands of years of history distilling the most efficient way to do it.