What I Have

There’s something very uncomfortable about having. The recent protests against the profligate rich have framed the debate as being between the haves and the have-nots, but those labels can be applied to any group who feels oppressed. Any group fighting for civil rights is a have-not. Frankly, anyone who’s in a position to feel dissatisfied with their lot probably thinks of themselves as a have-not. And they despise those who have.

graph showing average income

It only takes a little over $150k a year to be in the top 10%, and the more you make, the closer you are to the 1%. In California’s Silicon Valley there are plenty of firms paying this kind of money.

 

So, if you have money, you can’t possibly feel good about it. Even if you donate to charities, help the poor, etc., you’re still a rich bastard living on the backs of the poor.

My father, who is on the Board of Directors for the ACLU in Arizona, does a lot of work on behalf of those people who are being racially profiled and unfairly persecuted by local government. Arizona is a haven for old, scared, politically conservative white people, and the government there thrives by playing on their fears. My father is Mexican, and looks it. My mother, on the other hand, is Scottish. I look like my mother, and therefore, no one would ever think to ask me for my immigration papers if I were ever to be pulled over. But that fact causes me nothing but shame, as does the fact that I was born in Arizona in the first place.

I’ve been happily married for nearly ten years to a man who’s interesting to be around, well-read, likes thoughtful political discussions and foreign films, etc. In short, we’re very well suited and get on like gangbusters. We often hear remarks from people about how obvious it is that we have a great relationship. That’s heartening, but I also hate to bring it up, because I am friends with a lot of people who are either in crappy relationships or wish they were in some kind of relationship but aren’t.

I guess the long and the short of it is that I’m happy. I have a good life, and I’m enjoying it, but at the same time I’m eaten up with shame because I know that so many others aren’t happy, and a lot of them think that I don’t deserve to be happy either. I don’t think anyone’s so unrealistic as to say “If every single person on earth can’t be happy, no one should be happy,” but it does seem that an alarming number of folks live by “if I’m not happy, nobody should be.”

I hope that a lot more people are like me. Enjoying happy, fulfilling lives, but doing it quietly, so as not to bother anyone.

A Phobia is Irrational

This past weekend, I attended my sister’s wedding. I had met her partner (now wife) once before at a family gathering in Phoenix, and so didn’t know much about her. She’s an organizer of educational programs for adults and children in Chicago, she’s a talented musician and artist, she and my nephew get along very well. Those things I knew.

Waterfall with rocks and water. Like most waterfalls.

The guests stepped carefully across these rocks to a lovely garden overlooking the pond.

The ceremony was held Saturday morning at Osaka Garden, a lovely Japanese garden hidden away in Jackson Park. After the ceremony, there was a four-hour wait until it was time to head to the reception, and I was lucky enough to get to drive to the reception with my new sister-in-law. I asked her all the usual questions – how did you meet, is this your first marriage, how does your family like my sister…

It turns out that while her family loves my sister, they don’t want her as a daughter-in-law. At least, not if it means marrying their daughter. If my sister were to marry one of their sons, that’d be fine. But not their daughter. They’ve never been accepting of their daughter’s sexual preference (as though it were their business to judge in the first place), and so they’re dismissive of both her relationships and now her marriage.

I listened to her tale of rejection and homophobia with an increasing sense of outrage. My sister is a clinical psychologist in a respected program doing amazing work in Chicago. For twenty years, she has fought tirelessly to end violence in Chicago and throughout the world by understanding the social underpinnings of violence and seeking to disrupt the situations that produce it. She’s testified before Congress, been flown to other countries to introduce these methods to other places having similar issues, and is called upon night and day to give her input on complicated and potentially explosive situations. In addition, she is the kind of person whom all her friends call for anything and everything. She is the kind of person that everyone counts on. She and her new wife met because the wife’s sister used to work with my sister and when her son was in an accident, my sister was at the hospital reading to him, rubbing his feet, giving him pep talks, every time his aunt came to visit. She was so impressed that she knew she had to get to know this woman better. In short, my sister is a catch. The kind of person everyone wishes they could be with.

But she’s not good enough for her new wife’s family because she’s not a man. If she were, and were exactly the same kind of person, women would be falling over themselves to be with her. She would be Chicago’s most eligible bachelor. But because she’s a woman, and a woman in her 40s at that, she’s not good enough.

That kind of thinking makes me angry. It makes me want to shake people and say “Finding someone you love and who loves you in return is hard enough. Why must you make it even more difficult?” It makes me want to say “Don’t you realize that having my sister in your family raises the tone of your family considerably? That having your family connected to her makes you guys look really good?” But no. Instead of embracing the fact that their lovely daughter had what it took to get my sister to decide that she was the best candidate for life partnership, they reject the whole notion. They reject the fact that my sister can be both a phenomenal human being and a lesbian.

Maybe that’s it. I hate the word “lesbian” just like I hate the word “gay,” because it makes me feel that if you have to qualify it with a different noun, you’re setting up a judgement. A hierarchy. I am in the middle of writing a novel about a sculptor who falls in love with his model, although the model believes himself to be a saint, and so can’t return that love. Much of the commentary has been around the “homoeroticism” of the work, and I feel moved to tell people “It’s just eroticism. It’s not ‘homosexual love,’ it’s just love. There’s no need for an adjective; it is what it is.”

There’s no need for a judgement of my sister and her new wife. They are what they are. And they’re both amazing.

A Tree Falls In Brooklyn

There’s been a bit of a flap at my daughter’s school lately. Some of the kids are having trouble in one particular subject, and some of the parents are having trouble communicating with the teacher of that one particular subject. This is a small school – just 18 kids in the class – and at the monthly parent meetings, we bring stuff like this up, and invariably, one parent turns to the other parents and says

“But my kid isn’t having that problem.”

Your kid doesn’t have any allergies. Your kid is able to effectively organize their time without reminders. Your kid is willing to call all his/her relatives and guilt them into buying stuff for a fundraiser. Your kid was not injured during the last hike. Your kid is perfect and your kid is never the bottleneck or the problem. Good for your kid.

But somebody else’s kid is. And not just somebody else’s kid, but likely more than one somebody else’s kid. And when your entire contribution to the discussion is “my kid isn’t having that problem,” you’re effectively saying “since it’s not happening to me, there is no problem.” They are not there to hear the tree fall, so it couldn’t have made any noise.

To be blunt, that attitude is at the heart of what’s going wrong in this country. “I’m not having a problem, therefore no problem exists.” It allows people to believe that anyone who is having a problem has brought it on themselves. Meanwhile, institutional racism, misogyny, income inequality run rampant. But people think to themselves “it’s not happening to me, so it’s not a problem.”

But I have a friend. Another mom in my kid’s class. Her kid isn’t allergic to anything. She does have some problem in some of her classes, and she could be a little more organized, but her mother keeps her on top of things. And her mother also sees that she’s not the only kid in the world. That her kid is part of a class, of a school, of a town, of an area and that other people’s problems matter. She’s always got “a friend” who needs something – who’s out of work, who’s sick, who’s alone in a crisis, and she’s always working to fix it. This woman has a husband who makes a great living, she’s got a big, gorgeous house and a lovely daughter and goes to Italy or for ski weekends, etc. This woman is in a perfect position to say “I’m not having a problem, therefore there is no problem.” Except that she’s not that kind of person.

Thank God that someone, somewhere is not that kind of person. We need many more of not that kind of person.

Sincerely Yours

One of the many things that marks an introvert is the tendency to live in one’s own head. I don’t know how conversations work for extroverts, but for me they work something like this:

Me: Hello! It’s nice to see you! Is that her real hair color? I wonder if she thinks my dye job is awful.

Her: How are you! I haven’t seen you in a while. What’s going on?

Me: Nothing. I mean, I’ve been really busy, but it’s just the same old stuff. I sound really lame, don’t I? Oh, crap. She’s looking at her watch. She thinks I’m boring.

Her: I’m going to lunch with George at 1. Have you met George? He worked with Marshall in purchasing before Marshall moved to Des Moines. I heard he’s doing really well there. Really happy. He and his wife bought a five-acre property with a 100-year-old farmhouse that they’re fixing up.

Me: Wow! That’s great. He’s working in Iowa, or remotely? She thinks my house sucks. I know she does. For crying out loud, I’m not the DIY type! Or does she think I’m not happy? Why did she say “really” happy? Like I’m faking it? 

Her: Oh, he’s working remotely. Well, I’ve got to run. Call me! Let’s get together for lunch next week!

Me: Absolutely! Does she really want me to call, or is she just trying to be nice. I’ll call her, but I won’t mention lunch. Just in case she didn’t really mean it.

That’s right. Every single exchange is questioned. And long after that one-minute exchange is over, I’ll still be playing it in my mind, continuing to question “Did she really mean that?” for the rest of the day. In practice, it’s exhausting. I never feel like I know the truth about how other people feel about me. Whether someone is laughing at my jokes because my jokes are really funny, or because they think I can do something for them. When someone expresses delight or admiration for the work I’m doing, I don’t know whether it’s the work, or whether they’re trying to impress me by being impressed by me. I’m as susceptible to flattery as the next person, but I would also like to know that when someone is nice to me, they’re nice to me because they actually like me.

And just so you know, if I’m nice to you, it’s because I like you.

Your Kid’s Marriage Is Already In Trouble

In the past few days, I’ve been catching up with an old friend – “Can This Marriage Be Saved?,” a standing feature in the Ladies’ Home Journal. I’ve loved that column since I was a kid for the same reasons that I slow down to check out accidents. Schadenfreude.

The format has been the same since I can remember: first the wife tells her side (this is, after all, a women’s magazine), the husband tells his side, then the counselor gets a turn. I read the feature uncritically when I was younger, but now I’ve started taking a harder look. The counselors tend to be Freudian in their approach to problems, meaning that they look for the root cause of each person’s issues in that person’s childhood. People who tuned out when their spouse expressed dissatisfaction had distant, cold parents. People who couldn’t let go of any wrongs done to them had suffered some defining trauma early in life that they couldn’t get past. People who assumed incorrectly that they shared goals and feelings with a spouse who was silently seething with pent-up resentment had parents who never talked openly, and the spouses had parents who either fought all the time or never fought at all, making the spouse need to avoid conflict at all costs. The fact that the sitcom format of problem and resolution that resolves itself in just a few column inches gives the illusion that if you can just learn to speak in “I” statements, count to 10 before responding to criticism and plan 2 dates nights a month with your spouse, no amount of lying, cheating or fighting will put your union asunder.

I spent yesterday at The Exploratorium in San Francisco. The place was packed to capacity with groups of parents and their children acting in the same ways that you see them act at Disneyland, the zoo, the supermarket, in restaurants, at the movies, etc. As adults, we may act differently in the office than we do at home or out with friends, but as parents with our children, our act never varies.

What fascinated me most were the kids that drive everyone else nuts. These kids were losing their shit. Screaming, throwing themselves on the floor, clamping themselves onto their parents legs while begging for whatever they felt they can’t live without. Every time I saw a kid melt down when Mommy had her hands full and was looking the other way for a millisecond, or kids who ran between tables terrorizing other patrons while their parents ignored not only their kids’ behavior, but the reaction it was getting from other adults, I thought “Your kid is going to grow up, get married, and end up on the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal, and it’ll be your fault.”

The kicker came after the museum closed. The Pirate and I waited outside for the girls to finish up their tour of the Tactile Dome. A boy of about 12 tackled his grandmother, knocking the woman to the ground. The woman sat there, looking dazed and monitoring herself for possible injury for a few minutes while the kid stood over her, grinning. A man I presumed to be the kid’s father came up and scolded him, but the grin never left the kid’s face, he never apologized, and once granny got up and went away limping, the kid ran off to play with his siblings/friends. Even the adults said nothing about it among themselves, acting as though it was perfectly okay that this woman would certainly have bruises and scrapes (she had fallen hard on a concrete sidewalk) and could have more serious injuries (she fell right onto her tailbone – a sure recipe for back injury). Nobody walked the older lady to her car or looked in her direction as she shuffled away.

This kid is going to grow up with the sense that his actions have no consequences about which he need ever be concerned. He’s going to think that no matter what he does, it’s someone else’s problem. He will never feel that he has to monitor himself or take responsibility for any mess he makes. What kind of adult relationships can he look forward to?

I despair of a country that sees children as either decorative imbeciles too stupid to be given any responsibility or as bothersome pests, best ignored until they’re old enough to make entertaining party conversation. Neither does anything to prepare children for the life of a responsible, self-actualized adult. But maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe I should be more grateful that parents everywhere are grooming their children to entertain me by becoming the subject of columns with titles like “I’m a Hoarder and My Husband Hates It.” Your husband may hate it, but I can’t get enough of that stuff.

What Is Revealed/What Is Hidden

There are facts about my life that everyone knows. My parents divorced when I was very young. My mother was a single parent for most of my life. Only one of the four of us siblings didn’t finish college. My extended family is close emotionally, although not geographically. Those facts are generic, bland, and could be said of millions of other people. They don’t challenge anyone, they don’t embarrass anyone, they wouldn’t hurt anyone if they came out in public.

I’ve been talking to a few people about parts of my life that are not so well known. The things about my life that aren’t well known aren’t historical facts (sure, our family has its share of illegitimate babies, extramarital affairs and homosexuals, but everyone knows about them and nobody cares). Mostly, they’re about my own opinions of the things that happened to me as a kid.

From the time I was very small, my family has classified me as “dramatic,” their way of saying that I’ve always blown things out of proportion. My childhood was a really awful time that I was lucky to survive. I don’t recall it as being happy, and while I have a hard time remembering things like birthday parties or family outings, I recall in stark clarity childhood slights, fights and wounds. I contrast my view of my own childhood with my younger sister’s view of hers. She once claimed that she “raised herself,” but she may have amended that view now that she’s older. She was outgoing, popular, always the center of attention. When it was just my sister and me living with my father and stepmother, it was crystal clear that they liked her and had no idea what to do with me.

I’ve told people stories about my childhood, about things that I’ve been through, and they all say “You should write a book!” That’s true. I should write a book, but the book I should write is fictional and has nothing to do with the things that I’ve lived through. I can’t write those things, because I don’t have the courage to say thing things I know about my family to the rest of the world. Mostly, it’s because I know terrible things about the people I love, and yet I love them. Truly, deeply, in a give-my-life-for-them kind of way. I love my family in a way I feel as a physical sensation in my chest. It’s the stillness between heartbeats and the peak and trough of every breath. And yet, I know these awful things.

But there’s the flip side of this knowledge. A while back, I recounted something to my younger sister from our childhood, and she told me that she didn’t believe it had ever happened. I could have pulled rank on her and said “You’re three and a half years younger than me, you don’t remember,” but she’s the sort of self-confident person who wouldn’t believe me. I don’t think that the thing I recounted was anything of consequence. I could never tell her anything of consequence because of the fear that she would tell me it had never happened. I can’t stand the thought of having the defining moments of my life denied, because it would be too much like having my own pain denied.

Maybe if I put my family in a room, like they do at the end of television mysteries, and went around the room saying “YOU threw spoons at me when we were little,” and “YOU sided with your friends against me,” and “YOU told Mom and Dad that I’d done stuff that I hadn’t so I’d get into trouble,” pointing my finger in their faces as I paced around the room, the other hand held behind my back, maybe if I did that, we could all talk about it and what it meant to me. Maybe they would understand that the things they experienced as good-natured teasing hurt me deeply. That their labels for me – “lazy,” “weird” – defined in a negative way how I saw myself for most of my childhood.

So in the meantime, I write fiction. I don’t make my characters autobiographical, and I don’t base them on anyone in my family. If you want to dissect my fiction for clues into my early life, I will tell you not to bother. The truth you’re looking for is both more and less than you think it might be.

 

Living Out Loud

I’m nearly at the end of listening to Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop TalkingIt’s a well-researched and nicely-structured discussion about how introverts differ from extroverts physically, psychologically and temperamentally, and how American society undervalues the contributions of introverts.

I’ve identified as an introvert for the last 10 years or so. Before that, I believed I had problems with depression (which was situational), that I was socially awkward (because I was measuring myself against extroverts), that I might be autistic (because I was so different from other people I knew that I felt like a different species). Having come to grips with my introversion, I’m comfortable understanding my own needs and have developed an array of coping mechanisms for the kinds of social situations I encounter frequently.

When I tell people I’m an introvert, they don’t believe me. Other introverts don’t believe me because I am loud. Really, really loud. Embarrassing loud. Extroverts don’t believe me because I’ve spent so much of my time growing up among them, working with and for them, and being married to them, that I fake extrovert well. I grew up in a large family of mostly extroverts where the way you got what you wanted, whether it was second helpings at dinner or getting your sister out of your bedroom, was to yell. If you wanted someone’s attention, you didn’t tap them on the shoulder or stand in front of them until they acknowledged you. You stood wherever you were in the house and yelled until they yelled back.

I live in a house with two other people. My husband is an introvert raised by two introvert parents. His parents trained him from childhood to walk soundlessly over hardwood floors and to speak only when the other person was in the same room. You can tell he doesn’t like to yell by the fact that he does it only when he’s angry. My daughter is highly sensitive. From the time she was an infant, she would startle at sudden noises, shy away  from strangers even with me present, refuse to speak up in groups. She cried easily and demanded that her clothes not touch her in certain ways. She hates yelling.

I’ve made it my mission this year to work on my loudness. We adopted my husband’s parents’ rule about not yelling between rooms, and that’s going well. I’m working on speaking at a reasonable volume. I’ve been making an effort to be more mindful of the volume of my voice, and have found that the results are wonderful! Peaceful, non-stressful dinner conversation. Discussions that don’t have the physical feel (to me) of arguments. Just turning down the volume has made a difference in the way we interact – we tend not to interrupt each other as much, and to say “please” and “thank you” and “excuse me” more often. If these little shows of civility are a result of turning down the volume at home, I think that my next mission will be to start speaking more quietly when in public.

If I were more quiet in public, I image that people would have to come closer to me to hear me. In coming closer, they would have to moderate their own voices. In such an intimate tête-à-tête setting, people would naturally become more conscious of whether they’re talking over each other, using kind language, saying inappropriate things. They would be better able to discern the effect their words had on their listeners. Widespread civility might result! I see the experiment now as necessary, and I’ll let you know how it goes. But you’ll have to lean in close to hear.