Dr. Empathy – Or How I Stopped Judging and Learned to Love the Millennial.

I talk a lot of smack about people who dis millennials or “kids today”. My low opinion of that attitude is well documented. What I don’t talk about is if I sometimes struggle with my perception of youth or youth culture, and the answer is: I do.  “You little twerp” has crossed my mind on numerous occasions. In some instances it’s because I’ve interacted with a little twerp (being a kid doesn’t exempt one from being a jerk), but more often it’s because I have a set of expectations that aren’t being met. This is a story about one of those times.

Before I left my previous job, I made small bags of holiday candy and gave one to everybody. For the people who weren’t there, I just left it on their desk. They went over well – almost everybody said they enjoyed their treat, or thanked me for thinking of them. The gratification filled me with holiday cheer. Except that one kid, the senior college student who worked for the vice chancellor. I left his bag on his desk when he wasn’t there and that little shit never once even acknowledged that I gave him anything!

Ugh, rude! How dare he ignore my hand crafted gesture of holiday goodness! What a little twerp! Boy, if I was still going to be working here, I’d never give him anything again!

I had those thoughts for two days. The cognitive dissonance was really fucking with me. I couldn’t reconcile my affinity for millennials with the voice in my head that kept telling me he was rude and (Zeus help me) “entitled”. What follows is a transcript of the conversation I had with that Voice.

Voice: This is why people call millennials entitled, you know. He doesn’t even think he has to say thank you.

Me: I know! Although, maybe he wasn’t brought up to have those kind of manners.

V: So? He’s an adult living in the adult world and that shit is basic. Ignorance is not an excuse in adulthood.

Me: Exactly! It’s just basic good manners to say thank you.

V: Besides, we’ve heard him say it before – it’s not like he doesn’t know how. Remember when you brought donuts and hot cocoa? He thanked you twice!

Me: I remember. I made some kind of joke about bringing them and he was laughing and talking with the rest of us. Um, actually…

V: Right! Now here is, just ignoring you. So rude. He should be acknowledging your gift! That’s why you gave it to him!

Me: Wait, what? No, that’s not why…

V: But didn’t you feel awesome when everybody else specifically came to you and thanked you for your gift? Didn’t it make you feel all glowy and validated? Isn’t that why you gave them gifts??

Me: (whispering) Sort of?

V: Of course it is. So why don’t you just march right over there and take away his gift?

Me: Because that would be horrible! And rude! You don’t give gifts with the expectation that the recipient is going to make you feel good about it! You give gifts because you want the recipient to have it.

V: Are you sure? Because I bet you’re related to a lot of people who would disagree.

Me: This is not the time for that conversation. Look, hold up. The point here is that I gave him a gift and I feel bad that he didn’t make me feel better about giving it to him.

V: And you’re not taking it back because…?

Me: Because if it comes down to it and I can only have one or the other, I’d rather he have the gift than I have my thank you.

V: But that doesn’t excuse his behavior!

Me: Only if I’m operating on a very specific mode of social etiquette.

V: Everyone operates in that mode.

Me: No, they don’t. If I really wanted him to acknowledge my gift, I could go right over there and ask him if he likes it. Better still, I could have waited until he was present to offer it to him, instead of sneaking it onto his desk like a reverse thief. Santa leaves presents in the dark when nobody is looking and nobody thanks him! Maybe he’s respecting MY boundaries? Ever think of that?! Maybe he thought I left it for him because I didn’t WANT to interact. Otherwise, wouldn’t I have said something by now? You know, millennials are really sensitive to introversion and boundaries on personal interaction, it’s part of what makes them so great. Maybe all this time I’ve been listening to you call him rude, and from his perspective, he’s being super respectful!

Voice: (a little quieter now) It still feels rude.

Me: Yes, it does. Because I’m functioning on an unspoken set of rules of social interaction that date back to the Victorian era and I’m too full of myself to just go over there and talk to him about it. That’s my failing, not his.

And that’s when the voice shut up, my cognitive dissonance disappeared and I felt even better about giving gifts at work.

I’m not saying social niceties aren’t valuable or that we should all abandon expressions of gratitude. What I’m saying here is that sometimes empathy is hard work. Sometimes anger feels better than understanding, especially when that understanding only comes after a lengthy struggle. Sometimes overcoming social programming and what is “normal” is a lot of goddamn work and we don’t want to do it. I have found however, that it is nearly always worth it.leftridgepick-strangelove-650

Goals

What’s a New Year’s Day without the obligatory goals post? Of course, we’re all so busy sharing our goals that we’re not looking at anyone else’s, but that’s okay. It’s a vast internet and this is going to be more a reference point, anyway.

School starts in 16 days. I am unemployed. There are numerous appointments this month I must keep. (Remind me to update the calendar in my phone.) I have to get serious about tying all my social media together so I can start to diversify my revenue streams and make myself available to alternate sources of income. This blog will likely take on a new look, as I no longer have the luxury of paying for space to ramble. I’ll keep my domain, but in addition to my personal posts, there will be pages and/or posts devoted to my creative work, as well. Exciting stuff, but also intimidating.

I had my first paying photography gig last week, and it went really well. Portrait photography isn’t something I have a lot of experience with yet, but I may have found my niche among people who aren’t typically well served in this part of the country. Same with my embroidery art – I love to dot a fabric canvas with flowers, but add some socially conscious imagery or verbiage and suddenly I become a subversive crafter. Which probably doesn’t mean much in places like my hometown in northern California, but here in southwestern Missouri? Yeah, it creates a stir. Looking forward to capitalizing on that, if I can.

If 2016 was the home of my darkest moments, then 2017 promises to be the impetus of my forward momentum. I’ve never found the changing of the calendar year to be particularly significant, but even I have to admit that the symbolic shedding of last year’s misery is affecting. Being forced to wait during long, slow, tortuous lulls in my journey effected me in ways I’m still identifying. But all of the things I had to wait for are coming at me now – not so fast that I’ll miss them, but quickly enough to keep me eagle-eyed and limber over home plate, waiting to catch whatever comes next. Thanks for watching this game with me. It’s about to get exciting!

The Little Year That Killed

Another music icon from my teens – George Michael – passed away today (in London, aged only 53) and brought the by now predictable chorus of “Fuck you, 2016” from most corners of my social media. Which, inexplicably, sent up its own backlash pointing out how it’s not the year’s fault.

Well, yes, we know that. A year is a trip around the sun, measurably, with the calendar being sort of weird and arbitrary. 2016 isn’t a sentient being hellbent on mayhem, destruction, and the kind of soul sucking grief that turn you into a husk of your former self. *ahem*

Which is a pity, really, because regardless of intent, that’s exactly what 2016 has done to me and an inordinate number of my friends and acquaintances, and we’d all really like to hold someone – anyone – accountable. Assigning some order to this chaos goes a surprisingly long way toward making it feel like we had some measure of control over this careening, runaway train that was 2016.

No, it’s not the year’s fault. Neither is a celebrity death inherently more valuable than anyone else’s. But to deny that cultural icons create space in our consciousness – and therefore leave a space when they leave – is to discount most of human history. Art shifts and reinvents; both itself and its audiences. Not every celebrity is an artist (the same may be said in reverse), but there is not a 70s or 80s child that I know whose heart didn’t break just a little when America’s Mom, Carol Brady, passed away. Of course I mean Florence Henderson, who had a long and productive career playing many different roles, but there is an entire generation for whom she was the mom they came home to after school. That, my darlings, is an intersection of arts/entertainment and culture, and like it or not, its affecting.

Glenn Frey’s music is one of the few things my mother and I agree on. Gene Wilder turned up in all the films that made me realize what a weirdo I am. Leonard Cohen was one of the greatest poets of life’s essential truths. Morely Safer and Gwen Ifil were part of the old guard of authentic journalism and their influence will be missed. Prince was the soundtrack for and Muhammed Ali was a personal hero to a vast swath of America. What the loss of these people means to their friends and family is private, but the loss of their place in the cultural pantheon is significant, and in many cases symbolic. When David Bowie passed early this year, I was already lost in my own downward spiral of grief. A marriage that had just entered the explosion phase of the slow motion crash and burn that has characterized my life since August of 2015. Losing such a huge cultural icon and influence shocked me into reflection, and forced me to confront grief.

And then there is the political circus that was 2016, and that sadly, marks the start of what promises to be a 4 year shit show of incompetence at best, and WWIII at worst. That’s if climate change doesn’t get us first. The policies and promises that just under half the voting population managed to get into office promise to make my own life a Sisyphean struggle for the next 3 years, and for many of my friends and family as well. This isn’t hyperbole, this is just a simple fact over which I have almost no control.

Taken together, the national cultural tragedies added insult to the injury that was my personal life in 2016. I have wrested what control can be wrought, and am now at least in the engineer’s seat in the aforementioned runaway train, but it can still go off the rails at any moment. I could blame the train, or the tracks, but 2016 will pass from this earth and never be seen again. It can take the brunt of our anger and blame. 2017 will bring its own challenges and celebrity deaths, but it will not be the same as 2016 and for me, that’s enough.

Holiday Spirits

My daughter is Elf-level excited for Christmas. At 19, she can leverage this excitement into a force to be reckoned with. It’s not quite the same cuteness factor it was at 9, but a lot harder to resist, as she doesn’t respond well to “It’s bedtime now” anymore.

I am somewhat less excited. The first set of holidays post-divorce is hard. Especially when Christmas was your family’s “thing”. For all his other faults, my ex really went out of his way to make the holidays magical every year and by and large he succeeded. I knew Christmas would be hard. I didn’t know I’d be up against the second coming of Christmas Spirit herself, but we’re making it work. Last weekend we decorated a village of gingerbread houses. She had The Polar Express playing in the background to accompany her mood, I had wine for mine. I made Christmas candy for my coworkers, and managed not to eat it all. Instead I had wine. We put up the tree, I had… well, let’s just say there’s a theme.

So far, I have not succumbed to Scrooge impersonations. But I did have to talk for 90 minutes in therapy to realize that I need to give myself space to be sad. Not despairing, nor depressed – just sad. It’s okay to be sad at Christmas. It feels a little like trudging.

to-trudgeBut it is punctuated by sounds that make me sing, food smells that make me hungry, and lights and pictures that make me smile. It’s not all bad. Next year will be easier. And the one after that, easier still. This is my lesson of 2016. Nothing feels like death forever, except actual death and that hasn’t happened yet. Of course, my other lesson of 2016 was that Dorothy Parker knew what she was about when she asked, “What fresh hell can this be?” because there’s plenty of it to go around. You’d think hell would run out, but no – there’s always a fresh supply on hand. The sell-by date on first post-divorce Christmas, however, will pass and not come again.

Post Skepticon Thoughts

Wednesday morning hit me hard, as it did many people. My week proceeded from the numbed shock and horror of a president-elect Trump to the whirlwind of the 9th annual Skepticon in Springfield, MO. As it turns out, the timing was impeccable. Wednesday was for crying, and shocking my coworkers by walking out of work because my emotions were so acute. Evidently, it didn’t occur to them that anyone would cry over something as silly as an election. Thursday was for traveling, checking into the hotel, and commiserating with friends. By Friday, I was attending workshops, having the most amazing conversations with strangers, meeting some of my godless idols, and feeling hope and purpose bloom in my chest.

The workshops were planned long in advance of the election, but I found them especially timely. I attended Stephanie Zvan‘s workshop on how to handle public criticism first. Mainly it reinforced my ideas about what is right to do in those circumstances, while simultaneously reminding me that I have yet to successfully implement those ideas on a  regular basis. Scarlet, get thee some practice. Following that was Stephanie Novotny’s presentation on Ethical Advocacy, which introduced me to something called the “power and control wheels” and gave me a lot to think about.

Finally on Friday, I saw Neil Carter‘s “Nonversations: How NOT to talk to very religious people” which was a profound end-cap on the day’s lessons. I’m already an avid reader of Carter’s blog, Godless in Dixie, but come to find out he’s also an engaging and dynamic speaker. While engaging believers in discussion about their religion isn’t high on my to-do list, it is painfully apparent that talking with folk who have opposite political and social beliefs is a necessary part of moving forward – both for myself as an individual and for all of us as a country. Carter is a self-described diplomat, as opposed to firebrand, though he sees the importance of each. I myself tend to go firebrand first, but I very much want to be the diplomat in my approach. I want to be that person that can calmly and rationally have a conversation with people who espouse pretty much every political and social belief that I find abhorrent.  Shouldn’t be too difficult, right? *ahem* Listening to Carter’s thoughtful perspective drove home my inadequacies, and how important to me rectifying them are.

Saturday was for more speakers, including Greta Christina who abandoned her original presentation to give a heartbreakingly poignant talk about survival and resistance. It was hard to listen to, quite frankly, but a necessary outlet for the terror of marginalized communities.

Speaking of which, I’d like to address the safety pin issue. There have been some excellent expansions and rebuttals about it online, and my point (as I said on facebook) was this:

I thought the safety pin was a great idea because I have, and will again, stand or speak up when witnessing threatening behavior. So it didn’t occur to me that some may see this as more of a declaration of their values than as a declaration of their intended behavior. For me, the pin isn’t just a sign for at risk individuals; it’s a warning to potential violators. Please be conscious of this.

Edited: Also, please Fellow White People – don’t expect the pin to make you trustworthy. Wearing symbols does not make you an ally. Your behavior makes you an ally. So until you’ve had a chance to prove yourself, don’t blame marginalized people and/or communities for viewing your symbolic gesture with the same skepticism that’s been protecting them for centuries.

I foresee needing practice at this, as my natural inclination is to (again: firebrand) stomp my way into a situation of injustice with a loud verbal sword, which is exactly what they ask you NOT to do. Another reason Friday’s talks were so necessary. But, as a good friend pointed out on the same facebook post: “…a woman I’ve never met approached me and said, ‘thank you for being a safe place for me; I’m Muslim. My husband is black and disabled. Our son is gay and married to his perfect love, a black man who is deaf and also Muslim.’ So, I’ll wear the damned pin. She seemed to have as many people or more in her life as I do who are marginalized and living in fear right now.

The take-away here is do what is right for you. Not wearing the pin doesn’t make you against the idea, it just makes you a little less visible, and that’s okay. The pin is a commitment to constant vigilance, and is not for everyone. That being said, if you would like to share your plans, questions, or concerns about activism in the coming months, I would be happy to hear them. I belong to several groups that are focused on practical and effective advocacy right now and if I can offer feedback, I’d be happy to do so.

In all, I was desperately hoping that Skepticon would be a safe, healing place for me following the election, and it absolutely was. By Friday night I was feeling empowered, by Saturday – hopeful, and while saying goodbye to friends old and new on Sunday was bittersweet, ultimately it was an act of faith in my fellow humans. A reminder that endurance is a human trait, and every community has infinite variety.

skeptics-table

…and hardly ever what we dream.

I’ve been lax keeping up this blog. Life – it keeps happening all around me, and I haven’t had time to stop and reflect on it much. Even more so in the coming months.

Election news dominates. Yes, I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. I’ll probably vote a straight blue ticket, since the GOP is now reaping 25 years worth of sown ignorance and bigotry. Jim Wright said it best here. I’m tired, I’m moderately nervous that the necrotic pustule masquerading as a human in a stolen orange flesh suit will leave a rancid stain that will never, ever wash out of our country. I’m deeply disappointed in many of my fellow humans.

But on a personal level, things are continuing to look up. My plan proceeds apace, with just as much uncertainty as ever. Dark days are now just dark, not the all-consuming nothingness that plagued me a year ago. Reminders are popping up on my social media – “Memories!” I could turn that feature off, but I need to see it. I need to see that I am alive, and whole. If, as Emily Dickinson claimed, hope is the thing with feathers, they are finally smoothed. And my storm was sore, indeed. There is an ugly bruise on a part of me, but if I can manage not to poke it then most days I can pretend it’s not there.

Staying in one spot to live my grief has been the greatest challenge of my life so far. Sometimes the memory of the grief is worse than the cause. Drowning, suffocating are such apt descriptions. Conversely, breathing has become newly precious to me.

I am grateful beyond words for the people who showed themselves to be my personal heroes. People whose support has been unflagging and unconditional. At the same time, it’s been healthy to redefine the boundaries with those whose erratic orbits are… unequal to the task. And that’s okay. Not everyone is cut out to handle me at my worst. As it turns out, other people have boundaries of their own (or should). I am unbelievably lucky to have connected with people whose boundaries mesh with mine so seamlessly that their support became integral to my coping mechanisms. Their beautiful humanity carried me when I had little of my own. I have a Tribe. I need them.

I’ve never been this person before, but at the same time, I feel more “me” than I ever have. It’s terribly liberating, wonderfully frightening. It’s like being 18 again, only knowing everything I know at 40. Youth isn’t wasted on the young, it’s previewed. And now, ladies and gentleman, our main feature begins.

The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch’s door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.
― Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

Patriot with a capital P.

A few weeks ago I was meditating on the word “respect” and what it means, in practical terms.

And then Colin Kaepernick.

That narrative completely overtook both my swirling thoughts and the media message at large. So many opinions, so much vitriol. There are a lot of responses already on record, many of them succinct, adroit, or powerful in ways I could never hope to be. But I did come across a viewpoint that made me pause.

Someone said that a soldier who left part of themselves (literally) behind in service to this country was honestly and intensely hurt that the flag and ceremony that represents so much honor and sacrifice to them could be “disrespected” in that way.

First, I’d like to address the disrespect issue. Not participating is about the most respectful way to publicly protest. It interferes with no one’s observance. As an atheist, I don’t pray but when I find myself in situations where others do, I wait for them to finish. I can be militantly anti-theist in certain situations. I’ve been known to blatantly attack religious beliefs when and where they actively cause harm. But in a peaceful gathering of non-combatants (so to speak), I find that simply refraining from engaging in their ritual is enough to respect my own identity and keep the peace. I’ll be damned (again, so to speak) if I’m going to fake an observance to something that offends my intellect. The point isn’t that the ritual has no meaning, I’m fully aware of the intensity of meaning to the participants. Sitting it out makes a very clear statement about my own feelings on the subject, without inhibiting their ability to engage in their activity. Non-participation is the height of respect to everyone involved.

Let me say again that the point is not that the ritual has no meaning. It absolutely does. When it comes to the national anthem or pledge, I understand that for some, standing for the flag isn’t just rote indoctrination – it’s a symbol of sacrifice to something greater than themselves. I’m not so logical that I don’t recognize the value of symbolism. I get chills when I see missing man formations fly overhead, I get angry when I see a Nazi swastika. So I understand that the flag is a powerful symbol to those who’ve been steeped in the culture of American service.

Let’s go over exactly how “steeped” I am: I was married to and lived the military life with an enlisted career Army man. My brother proudly served in the Army. My father was in Viet Nam. One of my grandfathers was a Korean War veteran. My great-grandfather was a WWI veteran. My point is that when it comes to military service I’m well versed in the responsibilities and rituals that go along with that. Fortunately for me, part of my family culture is about honoring responsibilities, so while there is a healthy dose of American exceptionalism that overlaps military culture, I was also exposed to an equally healthy dose of personal responsibility and honoring one’s oaths. It’s not all guns and glory for me and mine – it never was. I’ve since diverged from my upbringing in precisely what I think my responsibilities as an American are, but that’s a different conversation.

I know good, decent, non-bigoted people who are truly hurt by the idea that someone could sit down in defiance of a ritual that, to them, affirms what is great about our country. I respect their emotions are real. In fact, that’s the point.

The point of choosing this very sensitive, ritualistic ceremony to highlight your dissent is to BE HURTFUL. It is meant to target people at their most vulnerable, their most unquestioning. Because that is how you challenge the status quo. I hate to break it to anyone who still has a romanticized view of the American civil war or civil rights movement in the 1960s, but those changes were not made via comfortable acts of politeness and respect. No oppressor was ever moved to change by the gentle supplications of the oppressed.

Telling Colin Kaepernick, or anyone else, to be respectful with their dissenting opinion is the same as telling me to pray because it makes people uncomfortable when I don’t. It’s the same as a man telling a woman to smile because it makes him feel better. It’s the same as telling people they must accept their lot simply because that’s the way it’s always been. Respect is not some magical, pre-defined set of rules that everyone agrees upon. Respect is defined by those in power. What happens when we don’t do those things? We challenge those in power.  Not standing for a pledge or an anthem challenges the power structure – and yes, that’s supposed to hurt.

Once more for the people in the back: You don’t change things by keeping everyone comfortable.

Comfortable is where complacency lives.

Complacency breeds contempt.

That’s a lot of slogans in a row, but I stand by every one of them. Unless I’m sitting during the anthem.  Rights are also responsibilities, and at the moment, Colin Kaepernick is the most patriotic man in the country.