Reading List

Most of my reading these days is required and so dry it could make the Sahara weep. Unless, that is, you’re really revved up by “Infection Control in the Hearing Aid Clinic” or “Compression for Clinicians”, and if you are, you have my sympathies. But infrequently over the last 18 months I’ve had occasion to read something interesting, and I thought I’d share those gems here.

Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom
This is one of those bandwagons I never hopped on the first time around, and probably wouldn’t have now either except that it was required for my Psychology of Aging class. It’s just exactly the sort of sentimental, pseudo-spiritual clap-trap that I steer clear of on pain of death (by eye-rolling, probably). But it’s surprisingly well written – concise, unflinching, and yes sentimental but not in a manipulative way. It was sweet, and though I understand that Morrie himself garnered quite a following shortly before his death thanks to Ted Koppel’s Nightline interviews, I think ultimately the book is about the practical application of his lessons about life through dying on the author, his former student and longtime friend.

Uprooted, Naomi Novik
This is a fantasy novel, written in an old school style that McCaffrey, Bradley, Salvatore and Paxton would appreciate. Something that felt like I could have picked it off the shelf at Walden Books in the mall back in 1987 and devoured in a night. Really rich in world building, with main characters that feel as real as your best friend. Some of the action sequences are intense and gory, but that only lends to the excitement for me. If it bothers you, be forewarned. A very fun read.

The Adventures of Joy Sun Bear: The Blue Amber of Sumatra, Blanca Carranza, John Lee
This is a shameless plug because I personally know one of the co-authors. But here’s my Amazon review, which I stand by: The Blue Amber of Sumatra begins on a desperately sad – and horrifyingly relevant – scene. Then it drops you into a lush world that captures both the exoticism of far off lands and the familiarity of cherished friendships and bonds. This is what the best stories always do – make you care, and make you excited to learn more. Joy’s adventure begins as running away, but turns into a discovery of innovation, bravery, anger and friendship. He wants to learn, and the reader can’t help but be drawn into those discoveries with him.
Little Joy Sun Bear is impish and recognizable to anyone who’s ever experienced childhood, but he’s also an empathetic proxy to the trauma that some children are forced to undergo in an adult world that cares little for their homes. It’s a warning for our environment and for the humanity that will be required to help others through the destruction of it. Its messages of loyalty, justice, friendship and courage are deeply important in today’s world, but told with the hopefulness and safety of small furry creatures and a happily ever after. The Blue Amber of Sumatra is a wonderful introduction to the characters that will open up the world to anyone lucky enough to join this adventure! Recommended for every child’s library of keepsake stories.

Surviving a Borderline Parent, Kimberlee Roth
This is a difficult book (and subject) and I’ll be honest in that I haven’t finished it yet. Nor was it my first choice. I wanted to read “Understanding the Borderline Mother” by Christine Ann Lawson, which is widely considered to be the definitive text for the layperson on the subject, but it wasn’t available at a price point I could justify and it’s on a lengthy wait-list at my local library. However, Roth references Lawson heavily, and I feel like it’s a valuable tool for my situation. Most of this opinion comes from the fact that I can’t read sections for very long without having strong emotional reactions and if you think I mean something dignified by this, then it’s clear we’ve never met. It’s incredibly startling to pick up a book and have it read like your autobiography. But the text has been a comforting and valuable continuation of my therapy, and I’m happy to recommend it. If you think it might apply to you, there are several online resources that give a broad overview that are still scarily accurate. If you survived it, you’ll recognize it right away, it’s that eerie.

As usual, my to-be-read stack is toppling over, but in it are a steampunk Jim Butcher novel, a Star Trek philosophy book, Dr. Parker’s treatise on the moral argument for choice, and the collected works of George Sand. I foresee completion sometime around the back end of never.

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New Pompeii

“Now, now, let’s be reasonable.”

That’s the most common response I’ve seen from men to my piece on women’s anger. Which wasn’t meant to be a “piece”, by the way – it was my last thought before falling asleep on Thursday night. I thought of women’s anger and other unstoppable things which led me to lava – its terrible destructiveness and its intractability – and I thought, “Hm, that’s something we have in common.” Evidently, some other women agreed.

So right on cue, here come the men. #Notallmen, of course, which we must be careful to say, lest a single, solitary bench-sitter who might have understood but instead got his one feeling – pride – hurt and decided to close ranks with ALL THE OTHER MEN.

“We have to be reasonable about this.”

No, we don’t. There is no reasonable response to the kind of abuse marginalized people suffer. Women, people of color, the disabled, LGBTQ – there is no reasonable response to having your rights and dignity stripped in public and private. There is no reasonable response to having your safety and security daily threatened. There is no reasonable response to rape. To violence. To the denial of your existence.

“You’re being completely irrational.”

Kindly fuck off with your offers of reasonable discourse. Unless, of course, you’d like to set the example by arguing your position from a physically threatening and mentally traumatic position. I’ll leave exactly what up to your imagination, but make sure it’s designed around the thing that most informs your identity. So, ignorance, maybe, or your precious testicles. Y’know, whatever works FOR YOU. Also, do this thing for centuries. Life span not up to the task? Recruit your ancestors and descendants! Make sure you’re being reasonable through every example of abuse anyone can bring up – which they will, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. We wouldn’t want to overlook any tiny example which would invalidate your entire response.

“Too much anger.”

Not enough anger, actually. Are you a sports fan? How about if, just before the start of the game, the rival team walked onto the field, punched out the refs, stomped over to 12 inches from the goal line and said, “Okay everybody! Starting now, play by the rules!” Which is a shitty analogy, because in reality it’s more like NOBODY WAS PLAYING A GAME AND SOME ASSHOLES JUST ASSAULTED PEOPLE THEN DEMANDED NOBODY BE MAD ABOUT IT.

The reality is you’re afraid. Men are afraid that women’s sense of justice will require retribution. It’s what men would want, after all. And I suppose that having your very existence erased through scorching the earth with a layer of lava seems pretty retributive. But the powerless know better. Anyone who has had their life burned to ash through oppression, trauma, or violence knows what it takes to rise from those ashes. We’ve been doing it for our entire lives, while those in power never have. We have the tools, the knowledge, and more importantly the courage to both rise from and withstand immolation.

“Calm down.”

We are not required to modulate our response to trauma for your comfort.  You can’t handle it and you expect our pity? Our sympathy for your discomfort?? Our anger is justified because it is the only justice we’ll see. You can run from the lava – I’m riding it straight to freedom.

Lava

Kavanaugh is going to get confirmed, we all know that. A lot of women will be very angry. Some might even take to the streets. But this won’t be the tipping point. There won’t be a tipping point, there never is. There will just be the subterranean lava flow of women’s anger – slow, blistering, savage and inexorable. We’ll go to bed angry, we’ll get up angry, we’ll drink our coffee and fix the kids’ breakfasts angrily, we’ll drive thru car line and to work angry, our male colleagues will ask each other if we’re on the rag, we’ll eat silent lunches with rage and we’ll pick up groceries on the way home with vengeance on our hearts. We’ll kiss our partners and our kids goodnight wrathfully. We’ll cry hot, silently screaming tears in the middle of brushing our teeth. We’ll go to bed angry. We’ll get up angry…

Nothing will seem to change for you. But the mother of a 32 year old man will suddenly snap at him to “Grow up!” when he complains that he’s pretty sick of frozen dinners lately. That quiet chick 3 cubicles down will show up out of nowhere and tell a gathering of dudebros that she’ll report them to HR if they don’t shut up. They’ll call her a bitch under their breath as she turns around, but she won’t care. The teenage daughter will ask her dad if he’d still find it funny if she was the punchline in his favorite joke. He’ll scold her for talking back and look at his wife, who will look back and say nothing. Another daughter will say nothing to her father – ever again.

The anger will shift, seismic but unseen. Before the lava used to burn us to ash on the inside. It’s bubbling over now. Enough of us have ripped open our bodies to let the boiling soil of our lives out that the heat itself causes fires. Sure, you can put one or two out at a time. A single flame is easy to catch. But the lava is elemental and everywhere. Kavanaugh will be confirmed. And in less than a generation he’ll be a petrified ash fossil, frozen in a rictus of agony in the new Pompeii. Nothing will seem to have changed, until it’s too late. The lava of our anger is going to cover the earth and bury you.

 

 

21st Century Children’s Crusade

It seems prescient that I re-posted my defense of “kids these days” just before the March For Our Lives this weekend. I’ve seen more than a few strong, passionate, erudite defenses since then. Way better than mine.

I’ve also been a weepy mess. Part of it is that I’m stuck in a depression spiral right now. The Nothing is kicking my ass, and it’s ugly. But the other part is that I simply can’t disengage from the crushing shame that these kids have to shoulder a burden like this. Not just that they have to, but that they’re so raw and honest and goddamn successful at it.

As a former parentified child, I have strong feelings about what kids should or shouldn’t  be responsible for. And, if I do say so myself, I successfully protected my own child from that fate. She’s a marvelous adult, but she got there in her own time, and I’m relieved about that. But I still project all over these smart, engaged, determined kids and I have hours – no, years of film to unspool. There is a furious, resentful child within me still railing at the unfairness of having to save the grown-ups, only now she wears the armor of a full grown woman ready to slash and burn in her defense.

When we watched Emma Gonzalez stand in silence on the stage after her brief words, the silence of the crowd was deeply unsettling. You could see the steel of her straight spine, the resolve in her eyes as she forced everyone to wrestle with themselves in the barren sound field. I’ve always been a defender of common sense gun laws, so that’s not what I wrestled with. Instead, I had to fight the shame that I didn’t do more personally to protect her. That my generation, long accused of apathy and cynicism, absolutely earned those criticisms. That I, a parent and advocate for children, somehow failed to spare this girl, younger than my daughter, from having to watch her friends die, then make the adults around her sorry for it.

And maybe… maybe I’m a little jealous, too. Jealous that she has the strength to stand up to real power, while I quietly excused the adults who betrayed me for… my entire life, basically. So as tears streamed down her face while she shoved silence down the throat of the country, maybe I was being drawn and quartered by jealousy and shame. I don’t say that to garner sympathy. On the contrary, I deserve it. I’m mad that there are people out there celebrating her as a hero instead of wrestling with their own shame. Yet, at the same time, she is a hero and deserves to be celebrated. It’s complicated.

I remember reading about the 13th century Children’s Crusade as a young person. Though now considered largely apocryphal, the tale was nevertheless framed as a tragic tale of idealistic, courageous children and their proud and weeping parents. I never once thought to myself that those kids were brave and amazing. I thought, Where the fuck are their parents?? Who let them do this? Why isn’t every adult waving handkerchiefs as children march through the streets rushing out there to snatch them back? What the shit is wrong with these people?? Joan of Arc – same story. I thought, She’s fourteen you sorry motherfuckers! Why does she have to lead your pathetic, useless army?!  Not that children are incapable of these things – I knew with a profound certainty that they absolutely were capable. But the injustice of adults watching, encouraging them to do it was nauseating.

This feels much the same. Except worse, because I know now what abnormal amounts of stress and responsibility do to immature brains. I know what sort of lifetime conditions these kids are going to have to battle that, on top of the PTSD they likely suffer, will snake into every aspect of their lives and create storms and struggles they didn’t earn. I know that some of them, statistically, won’t survive. It’s terrifying. If it doesn’t terrify you, you probably don’t get it. Lucky you, I guess.

I don’t know how to reconcile any of this. I thought maybe writing it out would help, but it doesn’t. I thought maybe I could find a way to escape the conclusion that I – even inadvertently – did to these kids what was done to me. All I can do is beg you, myself, anyone who listens, to not let them fight alone. Don’t wave handkerchiefs or have parades or share their pictures without standing in front of them first. They’re literally in the line of fire. We owe them the protection of whatever is left of our integrity.

nbc march
photo credit: NBCNews, Shawn Thew / EPA

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.

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.