How NOT to apologize: a handy primer

Don’t start out by co-opting the subject’s pain.

Don’t continue by drawing minute and irrelevant distinctions in their facts; such as quibbling between 8 times out of 9 or 9 times out of 9.

Don’t victim blame.

Especially don’t victim blame children.

Don’t mischaracterize the subject’s personality in an effort to avoid responsibility.

After all of that, definitely don’t say “I apologize” like it’s supposed to mean something.

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Fanning Flames, and Soothing Burns

“Anger is like ice in a high ball glass. It’s a good place to start, but it’s not going to do much for you until you start filling in the spaces with something more substantial.”

-me, pretending like I’m some sort of person who drinks from a high ball glass.

Thanks to the current state of politics in this country, I encounter a lot of anger these days. Not so much from the conservative right, since I mostly avoid those people, and not so much from the centrist pacifiers who are mainly super privileged folks who can afford to check out when they’re feeling all kumbaya and shit. I get exposed to the bulk of other people’s anger coming from leftists, radical progressives, and the marginalized. Their anger is righteous, explosive, and burns about 100,000 times hotter than any Karen-who-wants-to-speak-to-the-manager. It’s pretty glorious to witness in certain situations – exploding like Vesuvius over decrepit old opinions in favor of the status quo. Or bearing down like a freight train on “devil’s advocates” or the willfully ignorant. Or standing like a mountain before an onslaught of anti-social hate speech. Anger fuels the resistance, and it is out-fucking-standing.

So here’s a funny little thing about that last metaphor, though. Does a car with only a gas tank run? I mean, fuel is essential, but it’s not the only thing, right? There’s also an engine, full of cooperative working parts. There are wheels – those are important to make it go, and usually a driver or navigator of some sort. There’s a whole system that in addition to anger, drives the vehicle of change. And let’s not overlook the other significant aspect of some fuels, which is that they can blow up in your goddamn face when deployed in unsafe situations.

It’s not for me to define what an unsafe situation is, nor how much fuel any one particular person (or movement) needs. And I definitely don’t remark on the justification for anger, or any other emotion for that matter. Feel what you feel, that’s everyone’s right. But I’ve been reflecting on the effectiveness of that anger for change as I watch friends and allies both get singed by the authentic and intense heat of justice-driven anger, and wondering where my personal line is.

To illustrate, I’m going to use a recent quote from the actor and outspoken advocate for progressive social policies, Chris Evans: “The hardest thing to reconcile is that just because you have good intentions, doesn’t mean it’s your time to have a voice.” I’ll be honest that my first reaction was along the lines of, “Congratulations, sir, for finally figuring out that your voice is not the most important one in the room. Here’s a cookie to celebrate – please choke on it.” Because I’m angry, dammit, that after 40-plus years of being talked over, ignored, condescended to and just generally disrespected as a woman, this is a “revelation” to some. Now extrapolate that feeling outward to people of color and their lived experience, to non-binary folx, to the disabled, to anyone whose life doesn’t fit into our highly restrictive society. That collective anger is justified – by which I mean having that anger may be the only justice some of us will ever see.

But how effective is using that anger to frame my reaction to Mr. Evans’s statement? Dude has a twitter following of almost 9 million. That quote was in the New York Times, which reaches over nine million readers. Even assuming that crossover is nearly 1:1, that’s nine million people who were exposed to a successful, admired celebrity saying that sometimes it’s best to shut up and listen. Not everyone will take his advice to heart, but I’ve also learned that when it comes to changing minds, a “spray and pray” approach to getting the message out is just as necessary as targeting strategy. So while my reaction to his statement is initially born of anger (even if the expression is more like eye-rolling annoyance), what’s the alternative? That he never say anything? That he just be born knowing how to dismantle the cis-heteronormative, racist, ableist, profit-driven and acquisitive society that gave him that platform? Or that he stay silent in his knowledge? In modern parlance, the guy is becoming woke – and I know from experience what a painful, awkward process that is in private, let alone when it happens in front of millions of people. What does denigrating his process accomplish?

Which isn’t to say that his process needs to be celebrated. It’s not a binary system, that if you’re not criticizing, you’re lavishing praise. But there are so many things to be angry about – why waste fuel on a car that’s already powering itself down the road?

I’ve been attacked and criticized for this point of view. I’ve been told that I’m giving the undeserving a pass, or that I’m engaged in some sort of convenience-morality whereby I cherry pick my causes. And you know what? There’s some truth to that. Because at this stage in my life, I’m aware that I don’t have an unlimited supply of energetic anger and that I’ve greatly benefited from being given an undeserved pass – both things informed my journey to where I am and probably continue to do so. Another aspect that informs my journey is my privilege, of which I have an outsized serving. As a white, cis-het woman who can pay her bills every month, the only way for my invisible knapsack to get any bigger would be if I was a gender-conforming male. I am not often the vulnerable target, and I think my non-negotiable moral duty is to communicate effectively on behalf of the vulnerable. Sometimes that means curbing my knee-jerk reaction. Sometimes I AM the vulnerable target, and I need others to communicate effectively for me. “Others” like rich white straight dudes with a massive platform.

My social circle includes a lot of activists who are angry a lot of the time. Mostly they’re a lot younger than me, which I think probably has its own post worth of material which I won’t get into here. The horrendous emotional and physical toll our country’s direction is having on them is heartbreaking to watch. Their anger bubbles over often and sometimes I make the judgement that it’s inappropriate. That’s dumb. The anger is theirs to have regardless of my arbitrary internal scale of acceptability. But it’s also true that other people I care about, allies not so far along in their process or genuinely kind-but-clueless friends and family are getting torched in the fire of righteousness. Some will come out stronger and smarter (most, probably, because that’s just the sort of person I associate with), but relationships will be hurt, too. The relationships that we’re all going to increasingly need as the fight for equality, access, and visibility lengthens and worsens. I’m not here to call anyone out – my observations of this phenomenon simply inspires me to share my perspective. And tomorrow I may post why sensitivity is misplaced when social justice is literally life or death.

For today, though, I want to be kind where I can.

No, we didn’t do it better “back then”

Originally published as a Facebook note on April 7, 2015. Possibly more relevant now. 

Between family, acquaintances, coworkers and – of course – the internet, I seem to be bombarded with an onslaught of “What’s the world coming to??” comments lately. These comments – both unadulterated in statement form and pseudo-sly, in pithy meme format  – enrage me like nothing else.

They started out just irritating me, but the more exposure I got the more psychotically angry I got until I very nearly had an epic facebook explosion in just exactly the wrong place and time. Luckily, extensive experience in regretting previous facebook explosions prevailed and I left the keyboard to cool off. But it did bring to a head the need to unpack my issues over this common viewpoint and the seemingly blind agreement it fosters.

First, let’s look at the types of comments I’m talking about:

“What kind of kids are we raising these days?” said by a coworker in reference to younger people who don’t subscribe to her version of respect.

Any number of “back in the old days we did things differently and we should’ve stuck with it!” memes, posted all over facebook by people I otherwise like.

“People (and/or kids) today just want to be famous,” applied universally to anyone receiving the lion’s share of attention for anything.

I’m sure you’ve seen your share of these types of comments, and perhaps have contributed a few of your own in what you thought was a tongue-in-cheek, yet still adroit, commentary on modern society. (I have some bad news for you, by the way: it was neither of those things.) So now that we know what I’m talking about, let’s get to unpacking.

1. These comments are supremely unoriginal.

In a quote wildly misattributed to Socrates, but still written by a student of classical Greek culture: “The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise. …Children began to be the tyrants, not the slaves, of their households. They no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the dainties at table, and committed various offences against Hellenic tastes, such as crossing their legs. They tyrannised over the paidagogoi and schoolmasters.” (Kenneth John Freeman, 1907)

Plato may not have quoted that directly from Socrates, but the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of both men having said something similar. In fact, I’ll lay odds that anyone reading this has made the joke that they “sound like their parent(s)” while chiding, reproaching, blaming or otherwise bemoaning the state of today’s youth. THAT SHOULD BE YOUR FIRST CLUE. Every generation thinks their elders’ reproving scolds are out-dated and old fashioned and have no practical place in modern society. This “tradition” has been going on for centuries – like head lice and other undesirable symptoms of large groups of people congregating together.

2. The implied insult.

“Repost if you agree the way we did things was the RIGHT way!” Which would make everything opposed to that agreement… what? The “wrong” way? We no longer put children in the back of open pickup trucks. That’s “wrong”? Tell you what – why don’t you argue your position from the open bed of a ¾ ton Chevy barreling down the highway at 75 miles an hour. No? Are you sure? Could it be that your position, when stripped of the bubble-wrapped safety of nostalgia, looks a lot like reckless endangerment?

But let’s leave aside obvious and logic-defying issues of mechanical safety. How about those childrearing techniques of ages past? Never mind what my personal opinion is on corporal punishment, let’s address how each of the statements made with regard to “we raised kids better in those days” implies that kids today having nothing of value to offer. And don’t give me that bullshit about “exceptions”. If you post that nonsense where I can see it, I am under no obligation to assume that you think my kid is an “exception”. I think my kid is extraordinary, but not exceptional.

As Elizabeth Gilbert pointed out in a remarkably satisfying rebuttal to the “kids these days” argument (it’s on her public fb, and I encourage you to seek it out):

Today’s American teenagers are the most sensitive, least violent, least bullying, least racist, least homophobic, most globally-minded, most compassionate, most environmentally-conscious, least dogmatic, and overall kindest group of young people this country has ever known.

They were raised to be nice to each other. They have always been encouraged to be tolerant with each other. They weren’t allowed to hit each other in the sandbox while adults looked the other way and let them “work it out on their own”. They don’t smoke as much as my generation did, they don’t drink (or drink and drive) as much as my generation did, they don’t beat each other up as much as my generation did, and they aren’t as mean to each other as my generation was. They don’t even have as much sex as my generation did.

Yeah. Kids these days are also kind of glued to their electronic screens, which can be annoying when they run into you headlong on the sidewalk (speaking from experience), but do you know what they’re looking at? No, you don’t, so quit being so judgey, McJudgeFace.

3. Direct insult.

I am morally and intellectually opposed to many of the attitudes embraced in these romanticized notions of the past. The past wasn’t a very nice place to live, especially if you belonged (or were forced into) a marginalized group.

Fun fact: women were only granted the privilege of carrying consumer credit in their own name in… 1975! That’s right. While you’re waxing nostalgic about how great baby blue eye shadow was, your mom was buying that with cash because she WASN’T ALLOWED TO HAVE A CREDIT CARD in her own name. You know who got her the right to have her own credit? Loudmouth and militant feminists who definitely DID NOT sit down and be quiet in the presence of their elders.

Because I’m on a roll with quotes, let’s revisit this one from George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” If you honestly believe that the world was a better place when one class of humans exercised the power to keep another class silent, please just practice that silence yourself. You are an anachronistic albatross around the neck of human dignity.

4. Appeal to antiquity/tradition. 

Just don’t even go here. I can’t say this better than Wikipedia, so here ya go:

Appeal to tradition (also known as argumentum ad antiquitatem, appeal to antiquity, or appeal to common practice) is a common fallacy in which a thesis is deemed correct on the basis that it is correlated with some past or present tradition.

The appeal takes the form of ‘this is right because we’ve always done it this way.’

An appeal to tradition essentially makes two assumptions that are not necessarily true:The old way of thinking was proven correct when introduced, i.e. since the old way of thinking was prevalent, it was necessarily correct. In actuality this may be false—the tradition might be entirely based on incorrect grounds.

The past justifications for the tradition are still valid at present. In actuality, the circumstances may have changed; this assumption may also therefore be untrue.”

Note that the opposite of this is to appeal to novelty (“it’s better because it’s new!”), and that is NOT what I’m doing here. Just because something is new doesn’t make it better. Making it better means identifying the inherent problems in the old system and weeding them out. Homeopathy is not better because it’s “new”, but that doesn’t make the medieval practice of bleeding someone less wrong.

5. When we know better, we do better.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I first heard this statement from Oprah, but I still embrace it whole heartedly. As referenced above, sometimes past justifications were valid for the time and place. It’s okay to kiss a child’s boo-boo, it makes them feel better. But, if I may be so bold, grow the fuck up.

We now know that many human behaviors and identities exist on a spectrum; it’s not okay to label people based on ignorance. “Back in the day” we may have been somewhat justified in raising our kids in a culture of fear, but I’m going to take a leap here and say that era died out with the saber-toothed tiger.

If you, personally, still equate respect with fear, then you have my sincerest sympathy. I don’t know what happened to you to make you think that (though I suspect it was the generation before you going “IT WAS GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME AT THAT AGE!”), but I implore you to get to a library and look up virtually anything written after 1991 on the subject of early childhood education. Please. Just go. You’ll come out with a profoundly more empathetic value system, and not just a little resentment for your parents’ and grandparents’ generations. It’s a feature, not a bug.

In case I haven’t made myself clear, I think that clinging to unexamined notions of the inherent “rightness” of past habits and traditions is not just immoral, it’s dangerous. Not only am I happy to live in a time and place where knowledge, discourse, and scientific discovery are made available to the vast majority of people, I am actively looking forward to more of the same in the future. And yeah, I’m personally offended when you express regressive attitudes.

I know you think you’re cherishing your past, but there has GOT to be a better way of doing that than by parroting the exact same complaints your parents, grandparents, and other ancestors voiced going back at least to classical times (see #1).

I was going to close this out by apologizing for offending anyone, buuuut, let’s be honest: I’m not sorry, really. It wasn’t my intent to offend, but if that’s the outcome, I can only hope you’ll take a closer look at why you hold those ideas in such high regard. Why does it make you feel better to hold yourself up as an example of a good and moral upbringing while tearing down everyone who doesn’t agree? If you don’t mean “everyone”, then maybe examine who the hell you think is listening to you when you say such things. Either way, you should know that I am listening.

Year’s End

I hate that I’ve sort of fallen into the habit of reflecting on my year at the end of the calendar. The December to January hand-off has never felt profound to me, nor do I sense anything of new beginnings in the dead of winter. That’s stupid, and bleak. I like the autumnal equinox for that sort of thing, but the past couple of years I’ve been waist-deep in school around that time and I don’t have the mental capacity to reflect on a year’s worth of experience. So here I am, on December 28th, going, “Gee, I wonder how 2017 has stacked up?”

Ugh. To be honest, it’s been sort of a bleh year. Which is fitting actually. I had no idea at the close of 2014 that it would come to represent the start of my personal hellscape. At the time, I thought it was just a particularly rough year. How was I to know that it was ushering in a whole new paradigm of betrayal, loss, depression and self-doubt? But when all those things (and more! so exciting) happened in increasingly large doses throughout 2015 and 2016, I think my perception of “awful” changed. I mean, really. Things can only be “off the charts” for so long before you get a new fucking chart.

And so 2017 – the first year of the Trump presidency, the year of the Las Vegas shooting, some terminally pregnant giraffe, superstorms that nearly wiped out the entire Caribbean, a solar eclipse and #MeToo – just doesn’t feel like it really rates at the bottom of my new chart. My chart is impressive as fuck and 2017 just didn’t bring it’s A-game. Not that it didn’t try – getting turned down for my school was cutting and accepting a decidedly less attractive goal was bitter as hell, but some good things happened, too. Moved to our new place with the furry family intact, made good grades in school, made new friends. Got my car busted up in an accident, but walked away unscathed. Relearned what it feels like to be broke, but also got hired at an interview which was a first for me. 2017 was too evenly balanced, too much like “normal life” to deserve an adjective like “bad”.

Still, it was notable. It’s the year my divorce was final. The marriage was over long before, but for the rest of my life, the date of my divorce will be a legal requirement for me to remember. That sounds fun. It was the year I let go of a toxic yoke that’s been defining me for most of my life. Self-determination is heady enough to make 2017 memorable. It’s the year I stopped apologizing to myself for who I am. I also really started coming to terms with the fact that I need to be alone for the foreseeable future.

I recently told a young friend the story of how women who turn 40 get the superpower of becoming invisible. Men stop leering, media becomes silent, cashiers and cops alike stare over your head like they’re not really engaging with you so much as shuffling you along. Women who turn 40 become invisible, except, maybe, to each other. But it’s this marvelous shield that protects us from judgement or even observation. It’s liberating and fascinating and a little scary, and really not conducive to dating. I’m okay with that. I miss sex (like I’d miss a limb, goddamnit), but I’m not willing to engage in any of the compromises which attracted men to me in the past.

2017 was the year I decided to stop doing other people’s emotional labor. I know that sounds like a trendy, pop-psychology term, but it’s a real thing. If you’re not familiar with it, look it up. It’s exhausting. Dropping that habit is, for me, the equivalent of getting two extra hours of sleep every night. I’ll probably make a few missteps while I find my equilibrium in this new normal, but if 2017 has one major thing going for it, it’s the realization that I am not required to manage any one’s emotions but my own. The unpacking of that particular piece of baggage deserves its own post, but for now, my relief borne of this knowledge is enough.

So. This week will be gray and drab and boring and frozen as the calendar inserts an arbitrary start date for a new year. The clock will start on a new set of lessons and trials and maybe triumphs all gathered under the same numerical heading. My dearest wish for 2018 is that I’ll be too busy this time next year to sit down and reflect on it.

Not doomed to repeat it – doomed to never escape it.

I had occasion today to reflect that we may well be into the most turbulent and divisive times this country has seen since the 60s. And I think I meant the 1960s, but it’s possible it will get worse before it gets better and I might end up meaning the 1860s. That’s not hyperbole, that’s me paying attention.

First, I have only to pay close attention to my own situation: the most precarious I’ve ever been in, including my stint as a single mother working for just over minimum wage in the 1990s. At the time, I lived in California and there was both a state sponsored social safety net and my nearby family to help me out. (I availed myself of both at different times.) Now I have neither of those things. I am middle aged, uninsured and suffering from untreated health conditions, in the midst of retraining for a relevant career that at best will garner me lower-middle class wages for the rest of my life (at a student loan rate that, thanks to last night’s Senate vote, I’ll be unable to claim tax shelter from), and scraping together the money to pay my bills each month by virtue of a limited divorce settlement, selling my plasma and relying on my adult daughter to make up the difference.

Meanwhile, I and many of my peers wait for access to unfettered internet to expire and watch our government pass laws to both keep us in poverty and destroy the environment around us.

And I have it pretty good. I eat regularly, I can get out of bed unassisted, all five senses are in working order, I just got a part time job and enrolled in classes for spring semester. I have friends, heat, a working vehicle, and a computer. There are people I care about who can’t claim any of those things.

Those are just the personal stories. Every day I watch the government and my neighbors tear each other apart over disagreements about human dignity and as much as I see it happening in real time I still can’t quite wrap my head around it. The aging population – the ones who stuck daisies in gun barrels and marched for civil rights and sent men to the moon and brought them back from war and created art and literature that changed the world – have become scared of their own shadow. They, and in some instances their children, when faced with video evidence of police brutality and an avalanche of numbers about corporate greed, lash out at victims and claim that evidence is “fake news”. They rewrote history books to call the transatlantic slave trade “immigration” and they put spikes on benches to keep the homeless on the ground – or in it. They stand in pulpits and preach hate, then hide behind their god and cry persecution when contradicted. They steal future and resources from their grandchildren and blame iPhones.

We tend to look back and history and see what progress was made. That’s called survivor’s bias. Some people didn’t survive the 60s. And I don’t mean the graves that we keep sacrosanct or the bank holidays we use to sleep in. I mean plain, simple, everyday people didn’t survive. They starved to death. They died from abscessed teeth. They asphyxiated in garages. They slid off roads with no guard rails. They drank until their liver gave up. They got cancer from lead paint. And before they died, they suffered. Their families suffered. Some daughter, somewhere, watched her daddy get a toothache, be unable to afford or access a dentist, watched his face get puffier and puffier, until one day he got a fever, fell asleep and never woke up.

Once, we considered that kind of suffering beneath human dignity – both his, and our own. I guess we don’t feel that way any more. I wonder if I’m destined for an end as undignified. If any of my friends are. I fear it’s quite possible.

I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people. In some cases, the argument isn’t that there is a large segment of our population that doesn’t care, but that they aren’t even willing to admit that their actions effect other people.  They are so concerned with protecting themselves – from injury, insult, or intelligence – that they will pull out an endless chain of excuses as to why “others” deserve what they get, but “I” is a protected class. They are so isolated by their fear of change, their fear of losing their privilege, that they have developed an entire system of blindness to the indignity of their fellow humans. And then they elected people who capitalize on it.

I used to be interested in history. I used to wonder about the mindset of people who went to public executions. I don’t wonder anymore, and I realize that this is history – right now.

Sorrows and Deep Sighs

The world is bona fide mess.

Our president has tacitly threatened nuclear war on the one other country in the world with a leader stupid enough to retaliate. The institution of police have openly embraced their role as blue terrorists in our communities. A series of catastrophic hurricanes is steadily destroying lives and nations in the Caribbean. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are struggling to survive.

My tiny, insignificant corner of personal misery isn’t much by comparison, but it’s everything when my own mind is no refuge from the wretchedness. The only solution I can think of is to put my misery to bed.

The end of my marriage came without my consent, or input of any kind, really. My husband simply left – emotionally and verbally if not physically. No matter how I begged for communication, he simply stopped talking or acknowledging my role as his spouse in any way. All of my anger, all my despair, centered… no, centers, to be fair, around the loss of my agency. To this day, I seethe with frustration over never being able to confront our problems head on.

But that was his entire goal.

If he never accused me of failing him, then I couldn’t accuse him back. He wanted a do-over without consequences. Because to him, ignoring our 12 years together means they didn’t happen the way they really happened, and without my input to contradict, he can remember them any way he likes. My real failings become imagined in whatever way suits his narrative. My real quirks become monstrous or nonexistent as fits the story he wants to tell himself (and the next woman). My heartache, too.

While I have real regrets and real sorrow and real hurt, my worst pain comes from my erasure. There is nothing I can do to make myself relevant in his life again, for good or ill. I’ve long since let go of my love for him, but becoming invisible to the single person I trusted with every corner of my soul? That’s a betrayal I might never recover from. No matter what indictments I can throw his way (and there are plenty), the crux of my misery rests on the helplessness of being invisible.

And that’s on me. Because I knew he didn’t really see me. I knew it, and I chose to make excuses for it. When he insisted on portraying me in ways that were inconsistent with my perception of our relationship, I objected – in the beginning. But when those objections were met with “I’m just teasing”, I backed off. Because I didn’t want to perceive my role as humorless. I wish I had. I wish I had been perceived as humorless instead of whatever was in head. At least then there would have been a modicum of truth to it.

Instead, I dove into the dark spaces between what I knew was real and what he would acknowledge. There was peace in not having to talk, and I embraced it wholeheartedly. I was tired. I’d spent my entire life navigating emotions for people too damaged to do it on their own and I was just fucking tired. What he offered was freedom from that, and I accepted.

And that’s on me, too. I was tired, I was lonely, and I made a fatal mistake out of weakness.

It’s happened to better people than me, but strangely that doesn’t bring me much comfort.

My misery may be tiny and insignificant in the context of the world, but it’s also tiny and insignificant to the other person who might have shared it. I am a myth to the only other person in the world I wanted to be completely real with. I let go of him a long time ago, but it’s time to let go of the frustration surrounding my erasure. I will have to come to terms with the truth of my failings on my own, and maybe that’s as it should be. There was a saying in my house growing up – You’re the only one you have to look at in the mirror.

I’m the only one staring back. That’s enough.