Jun 22, 2014 - Physical Ed, Sex Ed    1 Comment

Au revoir, Aunt Flo

I have not had a menstrual period in 52 days. That’s almost a month late. No, I’m not pregnant. And this isn’t the first time in the last few months I’ve been late, though it’s certainly the longest delay.

I know what this means: I am beginning “The Change”.

But Jess, you’re thinking, you’re so young! And I am, though the pink hair is part of an illusion that obscures my real age to some extent. I can also, at long last, thank oily skin for something—I have very few wrinkles, despite a whole lot of worrying and laughing.

But early menopause is in my family. In fact, when the first irregularity appeared right before my 39th birthday, I called my mom and said, “Didn’t you start pre-menopause when you were 38?” She confirmed that fact, and I replied, “Well, like mother, like daughter,” much to her horror. My aunts began that phase of their life early as well.

I’m rapidly discovering that I know far less about what to expect than I did before I got my first period. There’s no health class with this information, however awkwardly delivered. To be sure, the inexplicable movie we were forced to watch in fifth grade, featuring the Broadway cast of “Annie” explaining menstruation, wasn’t what I’d call helpful. In fact, there are Internet discussions among people who left gym class the day they saw it, more confused and weirded-out by the random choice of message-bearers than the message delivered.

And even though I was well-informed in advance, you’re never really ready for that first period. I discovered mine when I took a bathroom break in the middle of a theater screening of the legendarily horrible movie Ishtar. It lasted a few days, then failed to return for an entire year. In fact, I’ve never been quite sure whether it really was my first period, or that the movie was so bad it caused me to spontaneously hemorrhage.

I took the absence of menstruation as one of the small graces during my pregnancies. Sure, I was puking my guts up all day, every day, for 5 and 7.5 months respectively, but at least I didn’t have to put in a tampon for almost a year.

So I definitely won’t miss having my periods. Nor will I miss my fertility, in all honesty. Even though I occasionally have baby urges that seem to come from a completely alien source outside my brain, I’ve resolved that I simply can’t do the pain and sickness again, let alone the sleep deprivation and potty training. Pregnancy was quite simply hell for me; labor and delivery were a breeze by comparison.

I’ll admit some concern about the physical discomfort, sleep loss, and mental changes that are common to menopause. None of those are things I’m going to deal well with more of—they would surely aggravate my already existing challenges with fibromyalgia and mental illness. And I’m already slightly annoyed at the unpredictability thing. Wearing panty liners and avoiding light-colored pants for the next ten years is going to be a pain.

But otherwise, I’m curious about the new club I’m joining. It doesn’t feel as momentous as the “now you are a woman” club, but I’m betting this one, with all its life experience and perspective, has a whole lot more fun.

May 26, 2014 - Ancient History, Sex Ed    No Comments

Playing Along

This post will be a jumble of thoughts because I can’t cope with the flood of memories too long held back. Strangely, it comes mainly from a place of gratitude because somehow I’ve escaped most of the everyday horrors that seem to be the price of admission for a woman living on this planet. And I say that in all honesty, despite the record of abuse, rape, and fear that mark my calendar of years.

Since my preschool years, most of my friends were boys because they wanted to play the games I wanted to play. Yeah, I wanted to be Princess Leia and Wilma Deering, but that’s because they shot the best. I also liked pretty dresses and fancy hair and Princess Diana and porcelain dolls. I was a girl who played with boys, and that has stayed true until this day.

When I was raped in high school, the camaraderie of boys became my refuge as well as my comfort zone. If I was surrounded by boys who thought of me as “one of them”, I didn’t have to fear that they would think of me sexually. I knew some of those friends would’ve liked to date me; I even kissed a few late in my high school career.

But to this day, I don’t know how many of them really thought of me as a girl. I do know that, if one of them got dumped by one of my girl friends, I was on the list of people who was invited over sometimes to witness the tribal mourning ritual they carried out. I didn’t understand why amateur piercings, and running in the snow in their boxer shorts was helpful; drinking bad liquor and listening to the Smiths were more understandable. I still hold my admission to those events in a special warm space in my heart. It felt like inclusion.

But that inclusion also took me to scary, awkward places sometimes. One night, walking on campus after a late play rehearsal, one of the guys led a pretend “campus tour”, pointing out the best places to rape a girl. Everyone joked about how to pick the right victim. A jogger with elastic pants, but not running tights because they’re too clingy and get tangled; a hippie girl with flowing skirts. Skirts like I wore. Everyone was laughing and tossing in ideas and playing along.

Including me.

See, I had ideas about where would be good places to drag a girl to hurt her on that campus. It’s because I walked home from that campus after play practice every night that spring. And the spring before. And the spring after. I walked as my knees shook and my teeth rattled. I walked fast, as fast as I could without sprinting.

And I made jokes, made suggestions, played along, as my heart clutched in my chest and bile rose in my throat. I blushed at the lavish praise and laughter the boys gave me for my witty cracks and horrible, horrible words.

Because it meant they didn’t know I’d been raped.

If they’d known, everything would’ve changed. I couldn’t have been one of the boys anymore. They would’ve had to think of me “That Way”. Not as one of the “safe girls”, but as a sexual body capable of being violated. Not as tall and strong and flexible, but as weak and vulnerable and overpowerable. Not as someone worth knowing, but someone worth avoiding. Shameful. Questionable. To be avoided.

So I played along. I thought of that walk many times when I was on my own campuses at night—as an undergrad, as a foreign student, as a teacher. I feel at home on college campuses; they’re home terrain to me. But when I see space between street lamps, or gauge the distance to a blue phone, or spy a particularly overgrown row of hedges, I think back to that game and wonder how many other boys have noticed those things, pointed them out to other boys with laughter.

And how many other girls have seen them too, and marked them bright in their mental maps: “Danger. Don’t go there.”

May 19, 2014 - Psychology    No Comments

The Slowest Spring

It’s May 19th, and it’s rainy with temperatures in the 50s. This is par for the course this spring—only the lightning and thunder suggests that it’s any different than March. The lilacs are only just beginning to bud; the haze of foliage on the trees is still more yellow than green.

Winter was brutally rough this year, setting records all over Minnesota for the longest stretch of below-zero days. Despite Vitamin D and a sunlight lamp, seasonal depression swept me under hard. I was home practically every night, going to bed early and waking up exhausted, only to sleepwalk through the day and do it all again. People asked me what would make it better; I replied, “The beginning of legislative session.”

1014038_832927833388313_1104830089_nAnd it did help, since I’m a wonky weirdo. Working to help pass the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act to provide strong anti-bullying legislation for our state’s kids was hard but familiar and empowering work, with some of my favorite people on the whole planet. I pitched in on the minimum wage increase and expungement reform too. I had places I was needed and appreciated, and my calendar was full and fulfilling.

But as those campaigns wound down, I felt myself begin to fray and flail again, instead of staying revived. At first, I told myself it was just my health that seemed to demand more naps and fewer commitments. But my temper grew as short as my endurance, and my motivation guttered like a bad candle that burned down too fast. Upsetting things that would’ve normally blown through like a storm wrecked me for hours and days. Things I’d looked forward to for months–like winning major legislative victories–only gave me a short burst of pleasure. The only pastime I engaged in was reading, and I recognized that I was using it for refuge more than relaxation.

So here I am, admitting the thing right as it’s happening to me: I have relapsed into depression. Yes, it’s been worse, but it’s not exactly good. Yes, I’m doing what I should be: taking meds, making appointments. No, I don’t have a talk therapist—my ability and tendency to talk over and around my feelings makes the exercise hardly worth the cost.

And yes, it’s improving with the weather. That is to say, so slowly as to be imperceptible. In the meantime, I’m planning, planting, dancing, and picking up my obligations again. The hardest thing right now is not to fall hard at the least little resistance I encounter. It’s also not easy to move out of the myopic fogbank I’ve steered into. I haven’t felt creative for months because I literally cannot see beyond my immediate circumstances, and even the smallest creative endeavor requires a bit of vision. I’m working hard to overcome that perspective, but support is always appreciated.

And in the meantime, I’m trying to remember that spring is coming, slowly but surely.

10154569_10203341687718938_2028995063837777875_n

I saw spring briefly in Washington DC, so I know it’s not a cruel hoax on Minnesotans.

Apr 2, 2014 - Uncategorized    No Comments

The Abusive Cult of Autism Speaks

A brief note: I’m not someone who believes religion is inherently evil and damaging. However, it’s inarguable that religious institutions and self-serving people in them have done evil, damaging things to individuals, communities, and nations in the name of their religions throughout much of human history. If you don’t agree that there’s a difference between religions as philosophies, and the human-run institutions that gather temporal power in their names, you’re probably not going to get much out of this post.

I understand why people flock to Autism Speaks. Really, I do. Yes, as an autistic person and mother to one, I am furious, shocked, outraged, and exhausted by the hate speech this group produces, while still monopolizing the loyalty of millions of people and the attention of the media. But when people ask me how anyone who knows someone autistic could possibly support this organization, I’m forced to admit that it makes perfect sense. Religious institutions have been abusing the faithful for centuries with many of the same tactics.

It starts with a crisis. Autism is not a disease, nor is it a death sentence, but the current public opinion tells parents whose child is diagnosed with autism that they should be devastated. Give up the dreams you have for your child, they’re told. They will never give you those perfect moments that every parent imagines for nine months or longer. They won’t go to kindergarten, or play sports, or go to college, or marry. You may never hear them say “I love you.”* You didn’t get the child you expected; you’re the victim of a cruel bait-and-switch. Autism Speaks validates this fear and betrayal; autism is a thief that abducts children and leaves dolls and monsters in their place.

In the face of this decree, parents look for absolution. They confess to a parade of doctors that they ate linguine with white wine sauce or took an antidepressant during pregnancy, or broke down and asked for pain relief during labor, or followed the recommended vaccination schedule during the first years of their child’s life. Autism Speaks tells parents that they don’t deserve guilt or blame for their child’s condition; autism is cruel and whimsical like a natural disaster.

The only acceptable response to denial and despair is to follow the proscribed path to salvation, and parents are promised that, if they do enough, they can pull their child back from the brink of hopelessness and save their families. Given the choice, what could possibly be too radical a course? To save a child, is there ever too much money, too many doctors, too many hours of therapy? The community of the suffering lifts up parents who pursue the most extreme efforts of self-sacrifice and dedication, and the stories of these saints are shared like talismans of paradise. Autism Speaks leverages the language of battle; autism is an enemy that can only be defeated by militant means.

And someday, the war will be over. Someday, parents’ sacrifice will be unnecessary, but only if we raise more money, hand out more blue lightbulbs, and find a “cure”. A cure would bring back the changelings, the lost children we misplaced through our carelessness. Of course, there’s one thing that’s even better than a cure: a test. If we had a test, surely no compassionate person would inflict this pain on innocent children and those who love them.** Autism Speaks offers hope of redemption and salvation; autism can be escaped and wiped out.

Except that none of this is true. The lie is that autism is a disease, or a thief, or a disaster, or a war, or a thing that can or should be exterminated. If you believe any of those, then you must accept that you believe the same thing of autistic people themselves.

And if you can’t believe that anyone is a disaster or a war or a thing that should be exterminated, then you must reject Autism Speaks. Their rhetoric makes precisely these claims about autism, and they use up the public’s attention span on the subject of autism to raise money that almost never actually helps a single autistic person or their family with what they need right now.

The most important thing about abusive religious institutions AND Autism Speaks is that they cannot tolerate sunlight, and they cannot function without a silent object of devotion. When autistic people’s voices are heard, the lies and hate speech wither in the full force of the logic, empathy, power, and beauty of their real lived experiences.

Because autistic people and their families are fully alive, no matter what Autism Speaks says. And life is messy, chaotic, expensive, and exhausting. It’s also hilarious, and meaningful, and transcendent.

Whether or not you believe there’s something that comes after this life as we’re living it, surely it can’t be won by silencing and abusing others on the way.

 

* – It hasn’t been that long since the same things were said to parents of LGBT or Down’s Syndrome children. In some places, they still are.

** – This is not a new concept. Most people know it under another name: eugenics.

Mar 25, 2014 - Physical Ed    No Comments

This Dissenting Body

Every body I inhabit is a dissenting body.

Anxiety, anger, and disorientation emanate from my autistic sensory body. I can’t stop listening to other people’s noise through the walls, and each heavy footfall above me bruises my eardrums. A puff of my husband’s breath on my face is enough to wake me from a sound sleep. I adjust the blinds, the lights, the brightness of my screen in constant rotation. I seek refuge under the comforting weight of white noise and thick blankets, even when my heart longs for other people and open air.

My physical body protests in a language of chronic pain and sleeplessness. These disruptions occur arbitrarily; actions which give me joy now may trigger furious flares an hour, a day, a week later. And if physical penalties for disobeying my body’s limitations weren’t enough, it also inflicts its dissent on my psychological self by failing to administer the correct neurological chemicals to avoid the fogged-in abyss of depression. Sadness begets sleeplessness begets pain begets sadness, and so forth.

I often find my body unacceptable, and so does society. Every narrow seat, every cutting waistband, every judgmental voice tells me I don’t fit expectations. I brush, I tweeze, I shave, I wax, I drape, I shift, I cut, I hide. My shape is segregated into shrinking fabrics and diminishing retail spaces. It is targeted with advertisements and poisons. On the days when my body prevents me from doing meaningful work or feeling lovable, I am crushed under relentless waves of warfare.

And even if my body could fit into the definitions of worth, its very identity—as a woman, as a bisexual, as a disabled person—is constantly erased for others’ convenience. The conditions of my existence are subject to legitimized dismissal by the medical establishment, the justice system, the corporate structure that wants to suppress and exterminate that which cannot turn a profit. Reproductive control and healthcare are privileges I can check out with my skin color, only to be recalled by my economic status. If I wear my gender too openly, I’m asking for sexual assault. If I conceal my gender too well, I risk violent words and acts by those threatened by challenges to an artificial binary.

So because all my bodies are cause for dissent, I use my body as an instrument of dissent. I’m learning to seek pleasure, and to wear my rolls and creases, flagrantly and without apology. I’m walking into the halls of power to demand care for my body and others like it, through access to healthcare, economic security, an end to rape culture, and equal rights for LGBT and disabled people. I’m raising my voice in rhetorical flourishes and strident shouts to demand an end to systems of racist, sexist, and classist oppression, fueled by corporate and military powers seeking to buy or win what I am entitled to as a citizen and human being.

As long as I have a dissenting body to my name, I will use it to obstruct that which oppresses it.

Mar 20, 2014 - World Religions    No Comments

Quid Pro Quo

I went to college with Fred Phelps.

I went to the University of Kansas for school, and he went there with his congregation to protest the Big Gay Agenda. He held signs promising us a swift trip to Hell in front of the liberal arts building where my first out gay friend and I boywatched together on the broad, sunny plaza known as Wescoe “Beach”. He protested outside the Kansas Union where I got gouged on textbooks—believe me, I wished to protest those days too.

And to my everlasting mystery, he picketed and shouted outside every single one of my college choir concerts. Monteverdi’s Vespers. Tallis’ soaring, complex 40-part motet. Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Franz Biebl’s achingly beautiful “Ave Maria”, sung at every Christmas concert. The greatest music ever composed—most of it commissioned and performed for the greater glory of God—earned his scorn without fail. Not that he ever heard a note of it.

Obviously, this defies logic, as did his entire mission in life. Logic has little to do with fear and hate. To Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, all that mattered was the existence of LGBT people living happy, honest lives on and around the KU campus. Do liberal arts and the fine arts department have a particularly higher number of them? Who knows.

In any case, a kind tradition developed among the upper- and underclassmen at KU. The first time freshmen encountered the WBC was usually on Jayhawk Boulevard. The placards they held proudly weren’t the only statements they made; they said hateful, hurtful things to anyone who walked by. Many freshmen felt compelled to stop and try to reason with them, to ask them to reconsider their beliefs—especially if they had children with them (which they usually did). Reason turned to frustration as the students met their implacable, mile-high wall of bigotry and conviction.

Just as fury began to ignite, some upperclassman would approach and put a gentle arm around the freshman’s shoulders. “Come with me,” they’d say quietly as they guided them away. Out of earshot, the older student would say something compassionate and honest about futility and self-care, irrationality and good intentions. With a pat on the shoulder, they’d go their separate ways: one gratified at having done a good deed, the other sadder but wiser for the experience.

In a year or two, they’d be the older students, guiding another generation of freshmen away from Phelps.

I don’t hate Fred Phelps—he hated enough for a million people’s million lifetimes. I don’t believe he’s in Hell, because I don’t believe in Hell. But if God is Love in the Christian Gospel, he spent his whole life away from God, which is the very definition of Hell in many religions. And he died in a world that more lovingly and openly welcomes the whole selves of LGBT people than it did when he began his work, so he must have known that his mission was an abject failure. He was even abjured by his own flock on his deathbed, after watching many of his own children and grandchildren defect from his church (and even Christianity, in a few cases) over the years. When you pursue scorched earth policies, all you have left at the end is a whole lot of scorched earth.

I know the immeasurable psychological and spiritual harm his hate has caused people over the years, but I don’t rejoice in his death. I don’t want to dance on his grave. I think he would take it as a sign of his righteousness if hundreds of people picketed his funeral with profanity and disrespect. The silence of business-as-usual in Topeka that day would be the most effective punishment of all.

But he wished my friends and me dead at every one of my choir concerts. And I find I have the urge to sing towering works of glory and beauty where he lies dead.

Feb 10, 2014 - Social Studies    2 Comments

Denial of Service: A Modest Proposal

I’M GOING TO FIND YOU AND KILL YOU.

I WILL RAPE YOUR WIFE AND MURDER YOUR CHILDREN.

YOU SHOULD DO THE WORLD A FAVOR AND COMMIT SUICIDE.

It’s not hard to find violent online threats these days. In fact, it was much harder for me to make up examples without the filthiest language humanity can conjure. Whether it’s a sports player who misses a critical play, a programmer speaking honestly about misogyny in the tech industry, or a woman of color pointing out convergence of sexism and racism in society, critics—often people with no discernible stake in the subject—spew the vilest threats and insults. It’s not always men, and it’s not always anonymous.

The cost is too high. This behavior drives valuable voices out of the public conversation, along with the perspectives they might bring to important discussions. We lose their stories, their insights, even solutions for situations that damage us all.

“What can we do, though?” people ask. “It all comes down to freedom of speech.” In this, as has been pointed out by many people, most folks are mistaken. The First Amendment to the US Constitution only guarantees the right to speak freely against the government, without fear of arrest or other retribution from the State. Freedom of speech in no way guarantees freedom from consequence. Sure, we’ve expanded this right to free expression to cover some of the most grotesque public statements, such as those by the Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan. But people have learned that the best way to exercise their own rights against them is to to create effective counter-protests. From the Angels whose wings block out the sight of hateful signs to miles-long biker escorts for soldiers’ funerals, we’ve found ways to allow hateful speech but deny its effectiveness.

So that’s what I’m proposing for online abusers. Every person who sees someone use threatening, terrorizing speech online should take a moment to reply, message, or tweet a simple phrase questioning that behavior. If just ten people responded in this way every time, to each user they see engaging in uncivil behavior, it would send the clear message that the Internet is not blindly permissive or a safe shield for violent behavior.

It does not need to be profane—“What is wrong with you?” It does not need to attack them personally—insulting their race, gender, parentage, or sexual orientation only lowers you to their level. It does not need to perpetuate harmful stereotypes of mental illness—“If you think saying these things is okay, you’re totally wrong” is just as effective as “You must be a psychopath” or “You must be crazy”.

There’s only one catch: You can’t pick and choose when to do this. You can’t wait until it’s someone whose politics you disagree with; we must be even more critical of our allies as we are our enemies. You can’t leave certain areas alone, with the excuse that “that’s the culture there”. If people are willing to say horrid things in one place, there’s a high likelihood they’re willing to do it elsewhere. And you can’t wait for other people to do this for you. If you want online spaces to be better, it has to start with you.

Good people can deliver a Denial of Service attack on people who cannot follow basic rules of human-heartedness. With enough people doing this, not only will there be plenty of voices against every hateful speaker, but there’ll also be plenty of the emotional support that’s needed when you look darkness full in the face. It’s not a perfect solution, but it couldn’t be much easier to start. If you’re receiving threats, share them publicly, so we know who to respond to. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and give it when requested. Remember your own compassion when you do.

Maybe I’m sounding too much like Pollyanna here, but the Internet doesn’t have to be a cesspool. So many of us have met wonderful people who enrich our world there. Let’s use that community to support those who suffer its inhumanity.

Meltdown in the frozen north

Our rental managers at Como Park Apartments stepped up to offer day-long activities for the apartment complex’s kids when school closed this week. This came as very welcome news, as our car remained resolutely opposed to starting in the sub-zero temperatures. Big-hearted community efforts like this keep us here when, to be honest, we could use a little more room—there just isn’t anywhere else with neighbors and management who give each other such close-knit support.

Monday was grand, and the DH and I got loads of work done while the boys played the day away at the party room. They came back with tales of new friends and pizza-sauce stains on their faces. Tuesday seemed to be headed the same way, but at 2, my cell phone rang. “I need you to come down,” our neighbor said. “Connor’s having a meltdown.”

When we got there, he was sitting in a corner with two of the staff who were talking calmly despite his sobbing. I helped him up and hugged him tight, despite his wet swim clothes, then convinced him to come sit with me so we could talk more easily. I held him until his breathing and tears slowed, then we started to dissect the series of events that left him so upset. A scare from some horseplay in the pool, combined with embarrassment over his friends seeing him cry, kicked it off. But it was the clever liar of depression that told him everyone hated him, that he was a waste of space, and he should just die.

While it was good that the DH and I were home so we could reach him quickly, the neighbors and staff had done everything exactly right. That’s far from guaranteed when it comes to folks who don’t deal with autistic or mentally ill kids every day, and I wanted to take a moment to write about what they did and how it might have made the difference between a bumpy patch and a potential disaster.

First, the adults recognized that he was starting to meltdown. In my experience, this looks different from a regular episode of angry or sad crying; instead of falling apart, getting limp, or long wailing, a kid in meltdown usually winds tighter, with shallower breathing and critical self-talk in an escalating pattern. They may lash out at people who try to get close, or even throw things, but they’re generally not interested in hurting anyone but themselves. The best case scenario is to derail the meltdown, and distraction is the best way to do it. Give the kid something to play with, like a fidget or craft—one friend kept knitting in her bag when she worked with a child who found the motion soothing. Strike up a conversation on a common interest, ask questions. If they’ll accept a hug or something heavy for some comforting pressure, that helps too, but it’s rarely the right move to force physical contact.

If you can’t de-escalate, safety is critical. Thoughts that hurt as much as the ones that bubble up in meltdown make a person want to flee, and they may bolt for the door, or try to hurt themselves, or both. Connor had been in the swimming pool, and tried to drown himself when his self-loathing got so heavy so fast. Once they had him out of the water, he wound his scarf around his neck; they got it away from him. He ran to the far end of the balcony, and they sat with him. Location, tools, and support—they had the bases covered.

Third, they stayed calm. Kids in meltdown are loud, and sometimes they’re saying things you don’t want to hear: dark things, angry things, scary things. The temptation to talk over them, to force reason atop their disorder until both of you are screaming, is powerful. But it doesn’t help. Even your silent presence, steady and resolute if non-communicative, is better than pushing them toward a brink they might not otherwise approach. Mostly, they just need to spill. Don’t silence, don’t argue—the storm will blow itself out if it’s not being fed.

We’re grateful for many things on the good days, but sometimes a bad day turns up a cause for thanks too. I can’t say enough good things about the compassion and quick-thinking our neighbors showed in a situation that’s hard to manage even with years of experience. The same factors, managed with indifference or inattention, could have yielded tragedy I can’t bear to think about. Every parent knows that sending a kid out into the world on their own is to live with your heart beating outside your own chest. Having the right understanding of a meltdown situation can equip you to handle other people’s hearts and children with care.

Dec 31, 2013 - Psychology    1 Comment

My New Year’s Revolutions

Most of the time, autocorrect takes us further from the truth, to hilarious effect. But every once in a while, it reveals a deeper wisdom. Today, that message shows up as autocorrect turns everyone’s New Year’s resolutions into New Year’s revolutions.

That substitution may make some people uncomfortable. A resolution is a low-bar challenge. It’s self-enforced, so if (or when) you stray from your resolve, the only person let down is you.

On the other hand, revolution is naturally unsettling because it throws out the status quo, and it frequently happens on someone else’s timetable.  Revolutions have ripples that go beyond your sight—if you start a revolution, expect it to have unintended consequences. And above all, revolutions strike at the heart of the systems that oppress us.

These statements may not seem like much to you, but each one of these things is something that defies a message or expectation I’ve received in the last year, many of them fostering doubt, shame, and worthlessness deep in my heart.

So, in these hours before 2014 begins, here are my New Year’s Revolutions:

  • I will say something out loud, to another person, about my beauty everyday.
  • I will work out more to recapture my stamina, not to lose weight.
  • I will listen without talking so I can learn from people whose lives and voices are not like my own.
  • I will answer questions fearlessly about myself and my story, so others know they are not alone.
  • I will begin to give my eldest son a comprehensive, emotionally-grounded sex education so he knows that that part of himself is not a source of mystery or shame as he grows into it.
  • I will work on yelling less.
  • I will not apologize for prioritizing self-care above overcommitment.
  • I will actively work to rewrite my unrealistic standards for self-worth.
  • I will not denigrate or be afraid to lift up my skills and accomplishments.
  • I will build stronger, more responsive connections in the groups where I work and play.
  • I will keep showing up for issues and communities outside my own.
  • I will create works of information, imagination, and enjoyment, even if they’re only for me.
  • I will make my voice and presence a powerful force in the halls of government and the streets of our community.
  • I will not accept or internalize shame for the way my family and I live, and what we value.

Dear Santa, You Suck

I was 5 when I figured out the Easter Bunny wasn’t real. It wasn’t that I failed the suspension of disbelief–it was that I noticed the Easter Bunny had the same handwriting as my aunt that year. In my usual, filterless way, I started to announce my observation, but my mom clapped a hand over my mouth and dragged me toward the bathroom like she was making off with the Lindbergh Baby.

To her everlasting credit, she didn’t lie to me. I asked if EB was real; she said no. I remember scrunching up my face, heaving a sigh, and saying, “Santa too?” She nodded silently, then issued the death threat to end all death threats if I wrecked the “magic” for my sibs and cousin. I got it, and we left the bathroom as co-conspirators. In the years that followed, ones of poverty and divorce, I knew that magic didn’t put presents under our tree. I knew that my brother’s Cabbage Patch Kid and my sister’s Barbie Dream House didn’t come from a workshop–they came from year-long savings and a tiring wait in line at the toy store. And I liked the thought of my mom sitting down to eat some milk and cookies after we’d all gone to bed on Christmas Eve. I knew she’d earned it.

When the Darling Husband and I set out to have children of our own, we thrashed out a lot of our game plan far in advance. One of those things was Santa, and the conclusion we reached was that we would never actively lie to our kids about the fat man’s existence. But we’ve done a whole lot of evasion and omission over the years. When they ask if Santa is real, we ask them, “What do you think?” When they ask how Santa knows where to find us when we travel, we ask them, “What tools would you use to find someone?”

This year, though, I’ve really had it. There are so many things about the Santa tradition that piss me off. Let’s leave alone for the purposes of this discussion the whole creepy, stalker, NSA-level spying, remorseless housebreaking aspect. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” should be giving kids nightmares, and making parents peruse home alarm systems instead of Brookstone catalogs.

My first objection is that Santa compliance is mandatory for American kids. Nobody knows how to leverage peer pressure like grade-schoolers, and woe betide the kid who has to explain why Santa doesn’t visit their house. Maybe it’s because their family celebrates Hanukkah or Diwali instead. But maybe it’s because they don’t have money for presents. Kids are quick to point out that how much you get from Santa is an indication of your worth and goodness. No presents means you are lacking as a person, and kids internalize that message along with the holiday mythology.

My second problem with Santa comes from his whole Modus Operandi. To get presents from Santa, you fill a letter with all the things you’re wishing for, stick it in a mailbox, and wait for your wishes to arrive. We don’t write Santa letters in our house, but the grandparents are quite the sticklers about wish lists. This process always begins with the paralysis of choice: they’ve been told all year long not to ask for things we can’t buy, but now they’re supposed to summon up all the things they’ve wished for in the last 12 months? We’ve tried to mitigate some of the stress by constructing categories, explaining that they should have things that are cheap, medium-priced, and crazy-go-nuts over-the-top. I’ve wished for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for the last 20 Christmases; my brother politely requests the Eiffel Tower every year. Recently, we’ve moved to a “Wear/Read/Play” model, which seems to function even better.

My third complaint is that Santa requires no gratitude. Since everything the man in the suit brings is magically constructed (apparently for free) in his workshop, and you get what you deserve, why be thankful? If Santa gets all the credit, kids don’t have any reason to think about what it costs for their loved ones to make those presents appear. Why is money so tight in November and January? Why does Mom look absolutely thrashed by December 26? As much as kids understand that a poor showing from Santa means that they’ve been bad, parents understand that if they don’t give enough presents, they’re failing a part of the parental contract laid out by society.

So that’s it, fat man–I’m cutting you off. This is the last year you get all the joy and none of the blame. I’m not falling for the line that taking away Santa will “deprive my children of a sense of wonder.” You know what they can feel wonder for? Real things, like nature, the cosmos, the infinitely woven tapestry of story and life that surrounds them. Instead of watching the NORAD website for Santa’s supposed location, we’ll bundle up and look at the cold, clear night sky.

When my kids get the things they want for Yule, they’ll know it’s because their parents worked hard, and that every gift cost real money that someone had to earn. They’ll learn the joy of giving by seeing and understanding why we’re happy that they’re happy with their gifts. The holiday magic will come from family stories and traditions, from the candles and songs on the darkest night of the year, and from the Time Lord with a Christmas special that we can feel good about our kids believing in.

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