Yes to Everything

When I was 17, my boyfriend and I were at his brother’s house. The brother was 10-ish years older than us, and my boyfriend idolized him: everything he did was cool, everything he liked was cool, everything he was was cool. He had long hair and the biggest nose I’d ever seen, and I thought he seemed a nice guy. As we left his house, he said to me “You don’t like anything, do you? You haven’t said one nice thing about anything all day. It makes me sad that you don’t feel pleasure at anything.”

It stung because, while it wasn’t true, I didn’t know how to correct that perception. When I was a kid I didn’t admit to liking anything or anyone, because that knowledge was power my family routinely used against me. My best friends were mocked as dorks for wearing the wrong sneakers or having the wrong haircuts. The boys I liked were not only told that I liked them (which I, of course, could never do myself), but that telling came with laughter at what a joke it was for me to like someone who would never like me back because I was ugly, I was fat, I was a loser. My defense was to deny liking anything.

After I graduated college, I got a job in an accounting department. My boss was a woman about my mother’s age, and I don’t think I ever saw her sad. Even when she pulled out her wallet and showed me the clipping she always carried of her 2-year-old daughter’s obituary, she never seemed sad about it. And she liked everything. She liked lutefisk and country music, and she was willing to be friends with anyone, no matter how grouchy or antisocial (my main evidence being her friendship with me).

I’ve met other people along the way who were shameless about loving whatever they loved. If I denigrated it, rather than shrink away from it, they took it upon themselves to educate me about what I’m missing. I was so excited to see that, rather than being made weak by revealing the things they liked, they drew people to them. It was fun to be around someone enthusiastic about things, and who was willing to give anything a try. The love was infectious.

I’ve tried hard to be that person. The one who loves everything unapologetically and encourages others to do the same. I feel like I’ve finally arrived. When checking into my hotel at the beginning of this residency, I spent a good 15 minutes talking to the staff behind the desk about writing and the kinds of stuff we did in getting our MFA. As I checked out, the woman behind the desk told me that she was thinking about me this week, and studied extra hard, and got her first A on an English paper.

That was it – a little chat about how great it was to learn to write well. A little encouragement. And now someone else is happy because they’ve done well. Why did I waste so much time with “no”?

Disestablishmentarianism

Three weeks or so ago, my right hip went out. It hurts to walk. It hurts to bend over. It’s not so much that the motion itself hurts, although it does. The worst part is that whatever muscle lifts the leg forward is weak. My right leg has about a quarter the range of motion as my left leg. It means that I limp even when I’m not in pain, and that my balance is shot.

But for three weeks, I’ve been putting off going to the doctor. At first, I told myself that I had pulled something running. It’s true, the problem showed itself the day after I had done my first 3-mile run in a couple of weeks. I took hot baths, put compresses on it, took ibuprofen. The hip would feel a little better, then a little worse.

Then I realized that it wasn’t just my hip. It was also my knee. This is the same knee that I had injured tripping over the mountain of crap in my daughter’s room. But did the knee problem cause the hip problem, or the other way around?

I’m telling myself these things in an effort to diagnose myself so that I don’t have to go to the doctor.

And then I realized why I don’t want to see the doctor. The last time I went to a doctor for my knee, he said that I needed an MRI.

“I can’t have an MRI.”
“Why not?”
“Because I have a magnet in my hand, and once it’s ripped out of my hand in the MRI thing, there’s no telling where it might go.”
“Why do you have a magnet in your hand?”
“Because I had someone put it there.” (I didn’t want to give this guy the entire long story of what led me to getting it, and it wasn’t relevant.)
“Can it be removed?”
“No.”

He ended up telling me that he couldn’t find anything wrong. Which was his shorthand for “since you decided you don’t want an MRI, I decided I don’t want to treat you.”

I’m not excited about going through that exercise again. I’m in pain, and I’m worried that I’m going to need something like a knee replacement or a hip replacement because the damage is getting worse and worse, but obviously I’m not so worried that I’m willing to actually go to the doctor.

A lifetime of not being taken seriously and being told that all the problems I’ve ever had have been due to my weight, is it any wonder that I’m not keen on the medical establishment?

Empathy’s Sharp Little Teeth

When I was little, we listened to the radio all the time. Does anyone do that anymore? I mean, in their houses? It seems like nowadays with iPods and iPhones and Pandora, nobody listens to the radio anymore except maybe in the car and at the doctor’s office where they always seem to play the kind of music that was new back when people listened to the radio all the time.

Anyway, when I listened to music, it changed me. Listening to the Beatles sing “Run For Your Life,” I would feel that I was doing exactly that – running through the house, staring wildly behind me at the ghost of John Lennon who would rather see me dead. I would shake my head, trying to erase the image of someone chasing me, trying to hurt me. If the music happened to be in a minor key, I would inevitably cry. I think that my parents ascribed my tears or frenzy or euphoria to something going on in my life, but that was never true. My “Run For Your Life” frenzy lasted exactly two minutes and twenty-five seconds.

Music isn’t the only thing that changes me. Right now, I’m reading Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World, and it’s having the same unfortunate effect. As the characters sink further into desperation and hopelessness, I feel that my own life is somehow slipping out of control, although when I take a step back, nothing could be further from the truth. Financially, I’m not teetering on the brink with a mountain of debts and a questionable career path. Personally, I’m not the sort to indulge my fantasies of throttling random children I don’t like. And, most importantly, my relationship with my spouse is not based on a mistaken notion of the person I suppose my spouse to be based on my own needs and insecurities. The book has gaping plot holes that make me downright angry (do they have no bail bondsmen in Wisconsin?), but I am sucked in anyway.

And yet, I realize that my dreams are increasingly frantic. My business dealings leave me feeling out of my depth and worried that things aren’t happening the way they should because there’s something I’m not doing. I tend to see only that I have a whole lot of irons in the fire and not the fact that I have many capable, willing friends and associates to help me tend them.

When I talked to my therapist, she said that of course I feel overwhelmed. That I demand more of myself than is perhaps reasonable. When I told her about my need to not only do many things, but to do each of them perfectly, she laughed at the notion. When I shared my feelings of frustration that I have so many ideas crowding in my brain that I can’t capture them all or act on most of them because I can’t write them down fast enough, she was nearly bug-eyed.

But the worst? The absolute killer that will send me under my bed in a fœtal position for a week? Hearing from my real, actual friends about real actual problems they’re experiencing in their real, actual lives that I can’t do anything about. That doesn’t come with any music, I can’t argue that it’s not believable, or that I don’t have to care.

I feel like letting the world in just hurts. It hurts my heart, it hurts the other people in my life who have to deal with me freaking out for no reason they can see or understand. I wish I knew what to do. I really do.

See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me

“Don’t see me!”

My 6-year-old nephew holds his hands over his face. He’s angry because I teased him, and his punishment is to withhold himself from me. “Don’t see me.”

I admire my nephew for being able to be angry. For being able to look at someone who’s an authority figure over him and say that he’s angry and that they deserve punishment. I admire him because he can do something I can’t. When I’m confronted with authority, I can’t express anger. In fact, I can’t even feel it.

I used to work for a large company. My boss was very social and the two of us split the work of our department up between us – she schmoozed her superiors and made PowerPoint presentations, I did the actual tasks. She regularly told me that if I didn’t like working there, I could quit.  That I, a glorified marcomm dork in a job that paid over $100k a year and came with great benefits, could just waltz out of that office and find another job. In tech writing. During a recession.

I had frequent discussions with my boss about the source of our disconnect, but she never saw it as a disconnect. She saw our inability to work together as something I did on purpose, as though I was a different person outside of work – one who loved social gatherings, cats, and knitting – and just chose to be introverted, sarcastic and OCD at work to piss her off.

In these confrontations, she would tell me that my task execution was fine, but she hated everything else about me. I didn’t come to work early enough – she got up at 5 so she could be at work by 7. I didn’t stay at work long enough – she never left before 5:30. I didn’t interact enough with people from other departments – she scheduled meetings and lunches and get-togethers with other departments. I didn’t act happy enough – she acted like every day was a birthday party. Every word she spoke had the same meaning: Why can’t you be more like me?

She’s not the only person in my life who has excoriated me for being the person I am. My parents, my teachers, every authority figure in my life took me to task at some point for not being more social, for not being more cheerful, for not being more extroverted.

There was never a way to express my frustration with adults. As a child, I didn’t know words like “introvert” or “circumspect,” so I didn’t have any way to defend myself. I couldn’t explain that I hated big crowds. That being dragged to parties with people I didn’t know made me anxious and exhausted. That my bad moods weren’t just me being willful, but because I was overstimulated and unable to escape. And without a defense for my bad behavior, I was guilty as charged.

When you’re little, it’s easy to feel hopeless and sad because the adults around you don’t understand you. It’s commonly thought that the reason children in the “terrible twos” are so cranky all the time is that their reasoning ability outstrips their ability to communicate, leading to frustration. What happens when that inability follows you throughout your whole life? What happens when it’s not your ability to communicate that’s lacking, but the willingness of those around you to listen?

It takes a sense of power to feel angry. To express anger, a person has to start with the belief that they’ll be understood by the person they’re talking to. But when you’ve been misunderstood your whole life, you don’t have that. Anger gives you courage; to take away anger is to dis-courage.

I moved away from my family and quit that job, but I still struggle when it comes to feeling that I have the right to be the person that I am without explanation or justification. I struggle with the feeling that I could pour out a sea of words, and they would never be enough, because what I need isn’t for people to listen to me.

What I need is for them to see me.

The High Cost of Writing

I know lots of people who can write anywhere. They go to coffee shops, libraries, they get up at four in the morning and write at their kitchen tables. I know other people who have some theoretical set of conditions under which they can write, but they can’t articulate what they are and can only point out what they are not. As in “I can’t write in my apartment. It’s not the right space.”

I don’t really have either problem. There’s writing I can do anywhere, and I do. I’ve had days where I’ve cranked out 10,000 words and still had time to do fun stuff afterward. Lately, though, getting time and space to write has been hard.

When I wrote a piece about a musician, I sang all the time. When I wrote about a woman who leaves her parents’ home to have an affair with a married man, I fought with my parents. I’m not the sort of person who has to go out and do something before she can write about it, but I do tend to take on the emotions of my characters.

It’s taken the occasional toll on my marriage. You see, my husband loves me. He loves me in that “can’t watch me suffering without trying to make me feel better” way. He also works from home, just like I do, and occasionally, he needs to ask me something or tell me something or show me something. Knowing that he could come walking in any second makes it difficult to really lose myself in writing scenes that require some extremes of emotion. If I’m writing anger, I’ll yell at him. If I’m writing a sex scene, I probably won’t get much more writing done.

The piece I’m writing now is full of self-doubt, loneliness, longing and fear. On Monday, I took advantage of being alone in the house for five hours to get some work done. I put on the playlist that I reserve for the project I’m working on, I re-read the stuff I had already written, and I thought about what had to happen next. And then, I began to cry. I kept blowing my nose and wiping my face with my handkerchief, but within fifteen minutes, it was soaked. So I got another. And another. My shoulders were shaking, my breath hitching in my chest, my lips were getting chapped from the hanky. Every once in a while, I had to stop typing because I had to put my head down on my desk and howl. Then, back to typing.

After a couple of hours, I had finished three thousand words. I had a whacking headache, my face was red and swollen, I had run out of clean handkerchiefs and I was exhausted. My family came home, but it was hard to enjoy their company. For all my exhaustion, I couldn’t fall asleep, though. Being over-emotional does that to me.

It wasn’t until the next day, after a wasted morning of trying to work but not being able to concentrate on much, that I gave in an napped. And when I say “gave in and napped,” I mean “passed out on the couch in my office.”

I admonish myself for not writing as often as I should, but if every couple of hours of productivity costs me a day of down time, I think I should be a little easier on myself.

Can’t Buy Me Love

The Pirate is sitting across the table from me writing his own blog post. He just got an email from the Sundance Institute about six films chosen to counter the “delusions” of Valentine’s Day. The thrust of the email is that normal love stories are unreal, and the desire to think about love in a way that makes you happy is not just naïve, but stupid.

I’ve been disturbed for a long time about the trend to denigrate anything that isn’t 100% good and wonderful and wholesome – and, in fact, even some things that are. For instance, I defy you to name a single popular musician whose work has earned a gold record or won a Grammy or has otherwise reached a large audience, but whose personal life has not been the subject of tabloid gossip. In some instances, such as Jennifer Lopez, the tabloid gossip outstrips the star’s recognition for her actual work. In the case of artists like Michael Jackson or Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), or even Richard Wagner, people’s opinion of their behavior colors their opinion of the work.

Politicians, who, up until Kennedy, were mostly well-respected as civil servants trying to do good for their constituents, are now among the most likely to have their private lives dissected in such a way that the kind of lapses in behavior that all of us have from time to time are magnified, discussed and interpreted in ways that paint those people as monsters.

People whose personal lives are beyond reproach aren’t safe. We can’t believe that anybody is truly good, so in the absence of actual dirt to dig up on people, we start rumors.  When I was a kid, it was completely uncool to admit to liking Mr. Rogers, even if your childhood was uncertain and you found his unceasing expressions of support and acceptance comforting. People express the same rancor even toward fictional characters who don’t show a negative side – characters like Barney the Dinosaur or Mary Poppins (who acknowledged that she was “practically perfect in every way”).

I object to this ongoing need to strike down anything or anyone that makes us feel that we should try to be better people. When you’re in love, you want to be a better person so that the object of your desire is proud of you. When you admire your heroes, you strive to emulate them and work hard to accomplish your goals. What’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what media thinks is wrong with that – there’s no way for them to monetize that feeling. America is run on the principle that for our economy to work, everyone must be buying things all the time, and if you’re taking long walks in the woods, holding hands with your beloved, or staying in and cooking spaghetti for two, or sitting up all night talking, you’re not spending money. You need to be reminded that love is false, and to get someone to walk with you, eat with you, talk with you, you need to buy a lot of stuff that will keep them interested.

Similarly, if you’re committed to being a better person – a better athlete or singer or artist – our society tells you that what’s important about those people is not the results they deliver. It’s the image they present. So you need to have the clothes and the hair and the dazzling white teeth, not the hours of exhausting work developing yourself at a skill before anyone even notices you. Because nobody makes any money off that.

So, what are we allowed to love? What are we allowed to express unashamed delight for?

We’re allowed to love our favorite brands. In fact, companies spend billions of dollars trying to ensure that we do love our favorite brands. Brands are not just lines of products, they’re lifestyles, dreams, aspirations. You’ll never be able to have Warren Buffet’s success, but you can buy the same kind of espresso machine, vacuum cleaner, paper towels that he does, and feel that you’re somehow the same.

We’re allowed to love food. I Googled “I love food” and got 985 MILLION results.  Food has become ridiculous. In most restaurants in America, the portions are excessive – 2-3 meals’ worth of food served to each diner, thousands of calories in each course of each meal. We’re told that this is a good thing – that more food is a “value,” and we believe it because we can’t get enough chocolate cake and french fries. 

We’re allowed to love sex. America is famous for its twofold relationship with sex – worshipping it on the one hand with advertising that sexualizes everything from cars to clean dishes, and villifying it on the other hand as shameful and sinful. We can say that we love sex so that all of our friends will know that we’re normal, but we aren’t allowed to demonstrate it, or even say it too often. There’s a line here, folks.

But America can’t monetize love or admiration. Those things serve no purpose in the Corporate State, so they will be rooted out and discarded, replaced by dissatisfaction, insecurity, and the notion that if I buy something, I’ll feel better.

Lemme know how that works out for you, Corporate State. In the meantime, I’m married to that guy who’s also sad about love-bashers, and tonight we’re staying in and amusing ourselves by having a long, interesting conversation. Take that.

Film #10: Fruitvale

The Pirate and I had tickets to the Grand Jury Prize winner for the Dramatic competition, and the winner this year was the film Fruitvale, about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, an African-American man who was shot by BART officers at the Fruitvale station on New Year’s Day 2008.

If we had actually gone to the film, it would just be starting now, and we’d be sitting in the dark of the balcony at the Eccles Theatre holding hands and staring ahead into the darkness. Except that, the last time I went to a film in the Eccles Theater, day before yesterday, I stared into the darkness, and the darkness entered my eyes and my heart and hurt me.

I live in the United States. I’m a graduate-school educated, above-average-earning woman born of a mixed-race family. I’ve experienced a whole lot of ugliness in my lifetime, and I’ve heard firsthand accounts of a whole lot more. I don’t need to be told again and again that people of color are wonderful, human, flawed, vital, important people at the centers of their own social circles. Nobody should need to be told that, because all human beings are those things.

I also don’t need to be told that people of color are routinely discriminated against, brutalized, stripped of their rights and their dignity, systematically excluded and otherwise made to feel less in our society. I’ve lived with that too, and understand how profoundly that affects people in every facet of their lives.

I know a few people who use social media primarily as a conduit for forwarding platitudes. Endless pictures of cute animals with endearing sayings, proverbs, and quotes from people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t discount anything that those men might have said, but I don’t have patience for people who are willing to quote their words to others, but ignore them in their own lives. They’re the same to me as all those folks who go to church on Sunday and act like assholes the rest of the time.

In the same way I don’t need to keep having Gandhi quoted at me, I don’t need to be reminded of the plight of people of color. It’s not that I stop caring – just the opposite.  Because I can’t stop caring, it rubs me emotionally raw and hurts me more than it does some other people.

The upshot is that I hope whoever got our tickets (we walked over to Eccles about an hour and a half before the film was to start and sold our tickets to one of the many guys hanging around outside the theater asking for them) enjoys and appreciates the film. I hope it makes them think about how they are in life and what they could be doing to foster more peaceful discussion and less fear and mistrust. I hope that they start looking at every person they pass in the street as a human being as worthy of love and respect as themselves.