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.

Dec 3, 2013 - Literature    No Comments

Midwinter Tales, Part the First

Every holiday clustered around the winter solstice is about pushing back the dark with the promise of light. And the tool they all use is story, whether it’s the Maccabees or the Nativity or the Unconquered Sun. Story is what we turn to for warmth in the darkest depths of winter. It passes the long nights, and carries us out of the cold to anywhere our imaginations can take us.

In honor of the tradition of midwinter tales, I decided that every evening in December, I’ll post a video of myself reading a bedtime story. Some of them, I’ll do live as a Hangout On-Air at 6pm CDT. Others, I’ll tape in advance and post in the evening.

Some of the stories will be quiet and peaceful. Some will be funny and rambunctious. All of them will be favorites, read many times to me or my sons. I really can’t wait to share these stories with you all.

I’ll also be including links to Amazon for each book, through an Affiliate link that gives a portion of the book’s cost to the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, an organization that seeks to put autistics in the room with policy makers and media so our voices are heard on the issues that affect us directly. You’re also welcome to stick something in the Tuition Fund here on the blog if you want to support this project.

gargoylesThe first night, I read God Bless the Gargoyles by Dav Pilkey. You can watch it here: Midwinter Tales, 1 Dec 2013(You’ll want to move the video forward to 2:57 where the story starts. I accidentally went live before I finished dinking around with technical stuff.)

 

littleoneThe second night, I read I Love You, Little One by Nancy Tafuri. You can watch it here: Midwinter Tales, 2 Dec 2013

Spread the word, and let folks with kids know there are free bedtime stories online–maybe it’ll buy them a few minutes of peace during this busy season. I hope you enjoy watching them as much as I enjoy reading.

A World of Hate

I knew Griffin had a bad day by the way he walked in the door after school Monday. Slow shuffle, hangdog expression, sad sad puppy eyes. “Rough day?” I inquired gently. He nodded, took his folder out of his backpack, and handed it over without a world.

I wasn’t surprised by the discipline slip. But I was absolutely flattened by what it said: “Griffin called another student the ‘n-word.'” I felt a wave of horror and nausea that it’s difficult to describe, which can’t be anywhere close to  how it feels to be on the receiving end of that slur.
“Griffin,” I demanded, “what n-word did you call someone?”

Eyes filling, lower lip trembling, he sobbed out, “NOOB!” before dissolving into a mass of tears and remorse in my lap.

I had to restrain my reflexive laughter in that moment, but I held him away from me for a second. “You said noob?! That’s what this is about?” He nodded, and collapsed against me again. I stroked his hair, and told him we’d get this straightened out, that “noob” isn’t really a bad word, though calling anyone any name isn’t a nice or friendly thing to do.

I went on to question him from a half-dozen oblique angles over the next half-hour, trying to figure out if he even knew the actual n-word. The kid isn’t above trying to lie to save his skin, but he’s pretty terrible at it, and the look of blank incomprehension at my suggestions were more telling than anything he might’ve said.

Finally, I asked him quietly, after a long silence, “Griffin, have you ever heard the word ‘nigger’ before?” He frowned and shook his head. After a few quiet moments, he asked in a whisper, “Is that the bad n-word?” I nodded and said, “You cannot ever, ever say that. It’s the most hurtful word there is.”

I got in touch with the school, seeking resolution. The staff and teachers there are outstanding, and they know the DH and I as the first line of enforcement when there’s any kind of behavior issue. We’ve been unfailingly cooperative, and they’ve been unfailingly kind and loving toward our kids. When we went in to talk this over with the principal and the cultural specialist, I expected that they would’ve found what we did.

But they said they’d questioned the kids present at the incident, and several of them said that Griffin did, in fact, use the real n-word, including one of Griff’s buddies, an African-American kid who couldn’t even say the word aloud when asked.

There is nothing about this incident I don’t hate to the core of my being. I hate that I cannot reconcile what I saw in Griffin when I talked with him about the name-calling, and what the school’s investigation found. I hate having to mistrust his narrative. I hate that I don’t think this will be able to be one of those funny stories we laugh about in the decades to come.

I hate that I was forced to speak a word to my child that I would never, ever say for any reason. I hate that someone might have already introduced him to it–maybe through a YouTube video of game play, maybe on the schoolyard.

I hate that I have to talk to a seven-year-old boy about racism in specific terms. I hate that the fact that he has more friends of color than white friends apparently didn’t protect him from this kind of violence. I hate that he may have made one of those friends aware of his own race and the sickness of heart that comes with it.

I hate that my personal and our family’s real lived values about equality and kindness frankly don’t count for anything in this situation. I hate that this happened in the middle of the most intensive racial equity work I’ve ever engaged in, work that’s made me feel like a soft, naked thing in a world of hedgehogs with quills of bias and bigotry and privilege that constantly draw blood on my aware, exposed heart.

I hate that I don’t know how to be a good parent in this situation. I hate that apparently, I haven’t known how to be one for longer than I imagined.

Hey, I blogged a thing somewhere else!

In light of the recent outrages from the shameless assplugs over at Autism $peaks (yes, I’m unhappy, why do you ask?), my friend Elsa asked if I’d do a piece for her bang-up awesome disability blog Feminist Sonar. You can find it here.

The biggest surprise for me was that my brain decided to go the cold, academic dismemberment of a faulty argument route, as opposed to the table-flipping screed I’d been expecting. In any case, I hope you find it illuminating.

Nov 12, 2013 - Social Studies    No Comments

Alone at the Ball

I’m participating in an intensive series of workshops on race called Beloved Conversations. It’s being hosted by a local Unitarian Universalist church, but it involves members of several other UU and African-American churches as well. The workshops have included large and small group conversations; the building of a series of timelines showing important racial/ethnic events of our city, our congregations, and our personal lives; and other activities.

So I wasn’t surprised when we were asked to line up for a Privilege Walk at Saturday afternoon’s session. In this exercise, people start in a straight line before being asked questions about advantages and disadvantages they’ve had in life, many of which are keyed to social privileges we receive by virtue of our birth. For advantages, participants are required to take one or two steps forward; for disadvantages, one or two steps back.

Different lists are more or less focused on racial privilege, but the one we used Saturday was more inclusive of gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and disability. As people fan out, patterns become undeniable: mostly white men at the front of the room, followed by men of color, then white women, and women of color at the back of the room. I’m used to being in the back third of the room, where white women from poor families and more advantaged women of color merge.

What I didn’t expect on Saturday was to be dead last, by one or two steps. It was just a function of the questions, not a significant worsening in my circumstances since the last time I did a Privilege Walk. There weren’t many questions about the advantages conferred by formal and cultural education, and the effort to include more forms of dis/advantage meant the hits just kept on coming.

Own stock or a trust fund in your name before age 21? Take a step forward.

Identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender? Take a step backward.

Given a car to drive yourself to high school? Take a step forward.

Have a visible or invisible physical disability? Take a step backward.

One or two paychecks from being broke? Take a step backward.

Told you are handsome or beautiful by complete strangers? Take a step backward.

It’s not that I didn’t take steps forward—I know my privilege. I’ve traveled, I’ve studied, I’ve received gifts from my parents and my race that benefitted me directly. But I felt a sudden, visceral solidarity with the women of color with whom I stood, and I admired their strength in the face of the challenges that put them there too. And as I stood there, looking at the backs of the other participants in these deep, meaningful conversations, I was filled with anger and helplessness at the accumulation of injustices that put me where I am.

It wasn’t even the first time this weekend I’ve felt profoundly alone in a room full of people I know. I attended the TakeAction Minnesota gala celebration Friday night. The three people I’d invited to join me ended up missing the event for a variety of reasons. While I literally couldn’t walk through the crowded social hour without bumping into someone I consider a friend, and I gave out as many hugs as I collected donation envelopes during the fundraising portion of the program, I was seated at a table of strangers, with other strangers at all the proximate tables. I whooped and hollered, stood and clapped, all throughout the program as beloved friends and fellow organizers paraded across the video segments and stage, but I felt it necessary to apologize for my enthusiasm to people who had none of the same connections in the room that I had. We weren’t celebrating the same year, and I felt isolated by my circumstances.

So there I was again, Saturday afternoon. Two members of the group noticed the silent tears streaming down my face, and each came over to hold me as they turned to quiet sobs of frustration and humiliation. Another took a few lateral steps to hold my hand throughout the rest of the discussion. Other participants who’d executed that awkward box step of advantage and disadvantage with me at the back of the room argued that the questions posed didn’t reflect anything beyond socio-economic values for privilege, while those at the front of the room grappled awkwardly with unasked-for entitlement and “luck” that attached to the chance of their birth. And one beloved friend argued that we at the back had an invisible advantage, that we were “all Cinderellas”—we belong at the ball, but we have a deeper reality we can return to, one that gives us a greater appreciation for those occasional invitations to the dance.

This might all come across as another white woman whining about her taste of the unfairness that people of color—especially queer women of color—live with every day. Maybe that’s true. But after the tears dried and the hurt dulled, what was left was an even deeper commitment to tearing down the walls that keep those of us at the back of the room apart. We know more about each others’ struggles, despite the differences of neighborhood and skin color, than we do about what it’s like to be one of the people at the front of the room. We can be present and supportive for one another in ways that are deeply meaningful. We can see to each other’s representation in critical public discussions about our neighborhoods, schools, congregations, and democracy.

We Cinderellas gotta stick together.

Oct 28, 2013 - Psychology    No Comments

Who on earth are you?

Our amazing minister, the Rev. Victoria Safford, preached a sermon this morning that asked a very existential question: “Who are you?” The funny thing to contemplate is that only at Halloween do we ask one another—even the very youngest in our midst—and accept with gravity and respect whatever answer we receive. In the spirit of revealing my true self in a time of masquerade, I thought I’d answer the question.

I am a woman. I am a daughter and sister, both biological and by marriage. I am a mother. I am still fertile. I am done having children. I am violently ill when I use hormonal birth control.

I am a wife. I am a partner. I am faithful. I am dedicated. I am a believer in true love. I am wildly, impossibly lucky.

I am an educator. I am a teacher of history, and religions, and languages, and rhetoric. I am an academic, conversant in the jargon of the ivory tower. I am a bit lost when I can’t practice my vocation. I am committed to learning everyday. I am a repository of vast stores of mostly useless information.

I am a creator. I am a writer. I am a musician. I am crafty, but not very handy. I am incapable of drawing a horse. I am at home in the kitchen. I am a fan of romance novels, the Muppets, lesbian erotica, rules-light roleplaying games, and morbid humor.

I am a bit of a slob, and a lot of a pack rat. I am convinced I am preserving valuable artifacts for future generations. I am a devotee of the chaos theory of organization. I am fond of folding fresh, hot laundry. I am reluctant to shower every day. I am in need of a housekeeper.

I am in pain every minute of every day. I am willful and heedless of my own limits sometimes. I am frustrated with the unpredictability of my disease. I am bad at self-care. I am disappointed that I cannot do more.

I am blessed with an autistic mind and keen senses. I am the owner of an eidetic memory and perfect relative pitch. I am susceptible to migraines from loud sudden noises. I am self-trained to read others for clues in their words and bodies so I can navigate the world more easily.

I am a survivor.

I am trained as a crisis counselor. I am a world traveler. I am an extrovert. I am dedicated to social justice. I am incapable of more peace work, because I am unable to engage in a fight for which there is no quantifiable chance of victory. I am drawn to anti-racism work. I am enchanted with issue politics and the feeling I get from a good protest. I am unsure whether I’m valuable to any of the people or causes I engage in.

I am insatiably curious about people. I am in love with stories and storytelling. I am a good listener. I am told I’m an entertaining, satisfying audience. I am never going to get tired of learning about others’ lives and views. I am honored to be allowed to share each and every journey.

I am a geek. I am a cat person. I am a Northern girl who needs at least four seasons. I am a Jayhawk and a cheesehead, but I am NOT a Nittany Lion. I am not a very good sports fan. I am a voracious reader. I am a stickler for grammar. I am a polyglot. I am good at improvisation. I am good under pressure. I am not good at getting quality sleep.

I am overweight. I am poor. I am naturally brown-haired. I am weighed down by crushing debt. I am never going to be a homeowner. I am not sure where this week’s meals will come from. I am scared for the future. I am tired of being afraid. I am always looking forward.

I am broken. I am forgiving. I am a child of Nature. I am made of star stuff. I am convinced of the divine nature of this planet. I am a skeptic. I am mystified by and utterly committed to my human brothers and sisters. I am in need of love, and I am devoted to giving away more love than I get.

And I am going to squeeze every drop from this short, precious life.

Meet the Geeklings: Superheroes!

CivilWarBoysThe Pink & Ginger posts have been surprisingly popular, I thought I’d give something else a try. Everyone seems entertained by the quotes I share from Connor and Griffin, my 11- and 7-year-old sons. And it’s true: they’re hilarious and clever and insightful and weird.

So every once in a while, I’ll have a conversation with them on here. Today’s topic is near and dear to the Banks Family’s heart: Superheroes.

ProfBanks: So, who’s your favorite superhero, and why?

Griffin: Superman is bulletproof, and that’s awesome. Even if they shoot at his butt, it bounces off!

Connor: I’m sorta mixed between Deadpool and Green Lantern. Deadpool, because he’s so hilarious and unexpected, and he talks to us, like, “Hey readers!” And Green Lantern, because he can make anything that’s not yellow…

I can’t believe neither of them mentioned this flaw in GL’s powers.

G: He can’t make a rubber duckie!

C: And he’s a good person, and that gives him the privilege of being able to make anything so he can help. Why I said it’s a tie is that his weakness is yellow, so Rubber Duckie Guy could beat him, and that’s pretty weak. We could throw a pencil or a LEGO guy’s head, and he’d be all, “Oh no my only weakness!”

Darling Husband (interrupts): The Golden Age one’s weakness was wood.

C: That’s even weaker! A pencil would totally take him out!

G: He couldn’t ever go to school! But what do you like about those guys?

C: Because they’re kinda like me. Deadpool is funny and unpredictable, and Green Lantern is creative and open-minded.

PB: Awesome, Connor. Griff, I’m kinda surprised that you said Superman, because you’ve always been about the villains more than the heroes, and I thought that’s why you liked Batman best.

G: Well, Batman can beat Green Lantern with his belt!

C: Stop talking about how your heroes can beat my heroes!

PB: Stay on target, kids. Tell me more about Batman.

G: Awesome tools! Fighting crime! Sweet mask!

PB: You know, I can type whole sentences.

G: I feel bad for him, actually. I feel bad for his parents, and I hate the robber who killed them. Can I tell you how he killed them?

PB: Yeah.

G: He used a gun. He shot them in the head.

C: Did you know that Batman actually used to use a gun, back when he started?

G: Wow, Mom’s writing this all down! Yeah, it makes me really sad. Can you make a little 🙁 ?

PB: Sure.

G: I like how he found the Batcave, too. It’s awesome because there’s a gigantic penny! He could use it to buy something really expensive!

PB: That’s not how money works.

G: What if someone painted it as a dollar bill?

PB: …

C: I do want to say that Green Lantern’s movie sucks. I mean, it was kinda cool, but it also sucks at the same time. It didn’t feel right, like with the Christopher Nolan series or with Man of Steel. It was more lighthearted. I liked it anyway, but it’s too bad.

PB: So what kinds of stories do you like best when you read or watch about superheroes?

C: I like the ones where there’s an essential key that you can’t imagine. Like, Captain America versus Iron Man in Civil War, or Superman losing his powers. I like how the writers are so creative and descriptive of how those things would happen. You don’t imagine Spider-Man killing one of the Avengers, but they make you understand all the pressures on them and how it could happen. What about you, Griff? Do you like the ones where the bad guy wins?

G: I like Teen Titans, because Robin’s in it, and he’s one of my favorites. He’s my favorite sidekick.

PB: So, Griff, you like stories for the characters in them most of all.

G: Yeah. Robin’s pretty cool, but not cooler than Batman.

PB: Why’s that?

G: He’s awesome because he’s Batman’s sidekick, and he’s funny. I think he’s probably the same age as my brother.

C: Do you like that because he’s a good kid rolemodel? To grow up and be great and help people? Would you like to be Robin someday?

G: Mm-hm.

PB: You realize Robin’s family dies, right?

G: Yeah, I’m also sad for Robin too.

PB: What does feeling sad for a character do to make the story good or bad?

G: I don’t really like it when people die. It makes me feel really sad, because it’s like they’re my friend.

C: I think it helps the story, because it helps you understand what happens to them. Like with Jason Todd. When he died, you really wanted to keep reading so you’d know what happened to him. Lots of people come back to life in Batman, and you want to know how they do that.

G: I’m also sad because Robin dies. I mean, Damian Wayne.

PB: Is that your favorite Robin?

It’s true: he does have awesome hair. But those are escrima sticks, not nunchuks.

G: Yes, plus also Nightwing. He has nunchuks and cool-looking hair.

PB: What do superheroes teach you about how to act like a good person?

C: It’s hard to explain, but superheroes give me inspiration to do good things, because they show that if you do good things to other people, even if you’re not in the best situation yourself, good things will come back to you. Captain America and Spider-Man are good examples. Spider-Man has had many deaths of people he loves and are close to him, because of bad choices he made.

PB: Was it really Spider-Man’s choices that made those things happen?

C: One of them, Uncle Ben. He started out cocky. And Captain America has had more deaths, but less personal to him. But he still chooses to fight for freedom, instead of Spider-Man who is a vigilante.

PB: Why is Cap better than Spider-Man because of how he fights?

C: Spiderman fights for certain people in his life, but he puts all his care into them. Cap spreads out his care across the world. Except for Nazis. He doesn’t care about them.

PB: Griff, what about you? What things do you see superheroes do that teach you how to behave?

G: It’s a really hard one. I don’t get it, because all the time, they just fight. It’s confusing that they’re good and they fight, because we’re not supposed to fight people. It’d be better if at the beginning of each movie, they said, “Don’t do any of this at home. Or at school.”

C: Or anywhere! Except maybe a boxing match.

G: They also teach you not to rob banks and stuff.

C: It’s kind of weird that Spider-Man’s theme song makes it sound like he’s singing at villains. Also, another thing: Who lives in America since they were born and doesn’t know about superheroes?

PB: Good question. Why do you think America is so into superheroes, especially right now?

C: Because we need leaders or reasons why to keep going, because we’re in a tough situation with the government shutdown and Osama bin Laden. We’re still getting over 9/11! So we need to have someone to watch over us, to protect us.

G: Because they [Americans] might learn from them how to protect themselves and how to be good.

C: Mom, are Americans terrorists to Afghan people, since we attacked them?

PB: That’s a really complicated question, Connor. Some people in other parts of the world do feel like Americans are bullies because of how we use our power to affect their lives. That’s not just military power; it’s also economic and social.

C: That’s not good.

G: No, not good.

PB: How do you think that relates to superheroes and how they’re supposed to represent American values?

C: I think it represents them kinda badly. To us, Superman and Captain America are the good guys and they fight for America and they’re good guys because of that. Recently (but before the New 52) Superman became more international, and maybe it’s because America’s not always right.

PB: Do you think that everyone appreciates the same values and stories about superheroes? What ideals do you think would be different?

C: There’s an episode of Justice League where they put Green Lantern on trial for breaking interspace law. It turns out he’s being framed, but the trial reveals that we have all these loopholes. Our politics are really dumb here—not dumb, but bad and some people who work there are dumb and close-minded. We arrest people with no good evidence.

PB: Is that how you think Americans seem to the rest of the world sometimes?

C: Yeah.

PB: How do you think that current superhero media can address that impression?

Not like this, though. This is bad.

C: Superman’s not just an American icon now—he’s known internationally. He fights for good, and he won’t stand down to an injustice happening. He’s not lazy about not wanting to go to bad areas; he’ll go anywhere something bad is happening.

PB: What about how we show superheroes as more flawed individuals, like Iron Man, not just big archetypes?

C: Man of Steel is a good example of this. Superman’s his own person, with his own clues and mysteries to solve in the world. He has a choice to make. He’s not perfect all the time.

PB: I did not expect to go this deep. Thanks, guys. As always, you rock my world.

 

 

 

 

Oct 11, 2013 - Physical Ed, Psychology    No Comments

Written In My Bones

Last March, I stopped sleeping. I’m no stranger to insomnia, so at first I just thought I was launching into another warped cycle. I stocked up the Netflix queue and resolved to wait it out.

But it didn’t resolve. No matter how tired I got–well past the point in any normal round of sleeplessness where sheer exhaustion would keep me down all night–I woke up between 1:30 and 3:00am, and couldn’t fall asleep again until the alarm was about to go off to wake the kids for school. I couldn’t figure it out. I cut caffeine after 6pm, I stopped napping (no matter how much I needed the extra spoons that helped me steal back), I adjusted my night-time meds up a notch.

Nothing. 3am and wide awake.

And then I remembered: Exactly that time, one year earlier, I lay awake to listen for Connor’s footsteps on the kitchen floor, going for a knife to kill himself. I never heard those footsteps last March, thank the gods, and there was no such fear this March. But my body knew that anniversary better than I did, and it sent a clear message–“It’s March, and you need to keep your boy safe. You can sleep when the sun is up.”

We all have smells, sounds, textures, even lighting that bring us directly back to very specific times and places. The silky binding on a baby blanket. The smell of the cleaning fluid from that time in the hospital. The unreasonably comforting taste of Kraft Singles melted on Wonder bread. The suffocating weight of a body, even though it’s not the body, pressing down on yours. When I asked about how their bodies store memories, friends mentioned more of these than I could keep up with. There’s no doubt that sensory triggers own the key to our memory, whether we like it or not.

Those experiences don’t surprise me anymore, except sometimes in the strength and speed that they fold time neatly in half, delivering us back to a precise moment in the past. What does surprise me is how well my body remembers past events that my conscious memory has long packed away in mothballs.

This March wasn’t the first time I’ve felt the gravity of memory. For almost a decade, I’d get depressed and irritable in May, around the time of year I was sexually assaulted. And a year after my deepest dive into suicidal depression, I was so anxious and high-strung, I was absolutely intolerable with trying to make everything better than the previous August. Neither of these is surprising–many people who go through trauma of some kind experience difficulty with anniversaries of those occurrences, well beyond just realizing that significant time has passed even as it felt like the hours and days were barely creeping along since incomprehensible loss.

There are other things that can trigger buried experiences. I worked with a physical therapist who practiced myofascial release. Fascia is the connective tissue that links our musculoskeletal system; it covers every single muscle, fiber, and organ in our bodies. When our bodies sustain stress and trauma, it stretches and tightens this connective web, causing pain. And therapists practicing this technique help people unwind and loosen the places where the fascia is bunched up and causing problems.

My therapist warned me when we started that unwinding damage sometimes causes memories to rewind in equally powerful ways. He said my body remembered things I hadn’t thought about in years, maybe even things that precede what I consciously knew. He advised me to have some time free after each appointment, in case I needed time to recover emotionally. And he was so right. We unwound injuries and threats as old as I was: fear and bracing against an unpredictable alcoholic father, a rib-breaking high-speed run-in with a vaulting horse, and the car accident that most likely triggered whatever latent potential for fibromyalgia rested in my body. I cried at almost every session, and only once was it from physical pain.

Now, so soon after helping my friend through the first steps away from sexual trauma, I find that my pain levels are sky-high. I’m not eating much. Honestly, I’m drinking more, though still never to drunkenness. I feel ill at ease in my body, and I find myself devoutly wishing to change its landscape, whether with wax (don’t ask) or tattoo ink, or cloak it in clothes that aren’t heavy with past wearings.

I can’t afford any of that, though. So I just sit here, with this body that remembers too much.

Oct 5, 2013 - Domestic Engineering    3 Comments

Pink & Ginger: The Secret of Our Success

Today is my 17th wedding anniversary with the Darling Husband, so I thought it would be fun to do another installation of Pink & Ginger, in which we talk about what’s made this partnership work for so long.

You can read more about our backstory elsewhere on the blog, but we’ll start at the beginning here:

 

 

 

Worlds' End screen

The Worlds’ End Bar on AmberMUSH, where the DH and I first met. For real.

ProfBanks: ‪So, Mr. Banks, when did you decide you wanted to marry me?

 

Darling Husband: Oh good, we’re starting with the easy ones.

 

It’s a toss-up between the time you killed my character on AmberMUSH with random dice rolls, and when you sent me that first mix-tape that was totally spot-on perfect.

 

But like every relationship’s beginning it’s the sum of all of its parts. Kind of unfair to single out.

 

PB: I can’t remember the exact day, but there was a point in the fall of ’95, when we were making plans for your visit, that I turned to Mari and said, “Hah, wouldn’t it be funny if I came back from Scotland married?” She looked at me like I’d lost my mind, but the little flip-flop in my stomach told me that, if you asked to elope, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

 

CandJFranceBirthday

DH and me, celebrating my 21st birthday in France, in all our ’90s splendor.

 

PB: I’m sure it must’ve been like watching a bizarre, incomprehensible rom com unfold over the year. Add that to the generally weird experience of living abroad with a group of Americans (and Dutch), it had to have been the best entertainment around.

 

DH: Plus the unpredictable hours and time differences! From time to time, there was the additional worry of, “Holy crow, she’s a million miles away in France. If anything were to happen, how would I get there in time?” There were a couple of occasions like that.

 

PB: I remember some of those. Honestly, though, I wonder sometimes whether we’d have moved along so quickly without that 12-hour time difference. It really greased the skids for what was probably inevitable, but never easy.

 

Do you ever think about how our relationship would’ve been if we’d had something like Skype? Or even just Internet with pictures?

 

DH: I imagine the outcome would have been quite different if we’d had Twitter. I see this with a lot of romances and couples nowadays. And not being able to constantly know what each of us were doing was probably a good thing, too.

 

PB: Well, actually, Twitter strikes me as much closer to what we DID have.

 

DH: I suppose. Maybe I’m talking about always-available smart phones.

 

PB: Oh that. Yeah, even just today’s long distance rates might’ve kept the urgency levels for being together lower.

 

So, what’s the best thing about being married to me?

 

DH: The absolute best thing is knowing that we have our own culture and shared intellectual & emotional space that nobody else has. It’s a hybrid that started up in the days of MUSHing and exists now with a thousand little in-jokes, references, interests, and hobbies. Even though we don’t do the same things all the time, I never get the “why does she do that?” thought that comes with, say, not understanding why you like Prince so much.

 

 

 

When DH makes fun of my love for Prince, doves cry.

 

PB: The Prince thing is easy—it’s because Purple Rain is the best thing ever. But yes, we’ve built this whole world and language and symbology that I find hilarious on a daily basis. And while I value that immensely, I also want to say that I appreciate the fact that we work pretty seamlessly as a team, and we’re rock solid when we do. I often feel like circumstances are overwhelming, but I never doubt that we’ll make it through.

DH: Yes. I think that’s emblematic of this shared life, though. It’s the foundation for why we can relax enough to enjoy that. Sometimes things are incredibly stressful for one or both of us, but I know laughter isn’t too far away—and if not laughter, at least a firm set of the jaw and a desire to kick some ass.

 

PB: “A firm set of the jaw and a desire to kick some ass” should be on my business card.

 

What’s one weird thing I do that you kinda love?

 

DH: There are a ton of things. One of them is the weird voices and sounds you do that accompany watching or acting out things. “Wahoo! Wahey! Whoopee!” as you watch cat fail videos, for example. It’s like you narrate life in a fun way.

 

 

DH with a sock puppet of the Serpent of Chaos that I made for his birthday. Don't try to explain it.

DH with a sock puppet of the Serpent of Chaos that I made for his birthday. Don’t try to understand it.

PB: It’s hard for me to choose, but I’d say I’m pretty enchanted after all this time by the Closet of Random Weirdness you can dial into. Nobody else does that quite like you, except maybe Eddie Izzard.

 

So, is there a quality about yourself that you think has been essential for building such a strong marriage? I know it’s not what you thought you were signing up for when we exchanged rings.

 

DH: I’ve said this fairly often in the past, but it’s a combination of being fiercely loyal and having a lot of willpower. That’s not to mean that sticking with you has required a force of will, but I’ve chosen to invest in something I believe has value and worth and is greater than myself, and so I will move heaven and earth to ensure that it’s held up.

 

I hope this also comes out in my parenting and my job, too, but really I think my surprise at anyone asking how I can be married for this long comes from “Well, what else did you expect me to do?” I made vows, I made a promise, and I entered into it willingly and without an expectation that it would always be roses and leafy garlands.

 

PB: Yeah, but fibromyalgia and a house full of neurodiverse people and a cat that’s determined to rid you of the ginger caterpillar on your upper lip? I can’t even say how many people would’ve run the other way.

 

DH: I suppose it’s a good thing I’m not those people? I mean, I’d be a sad dude. Plus nobody ever knows what’s going to come along. I think my whole life with you has been one of discovery in spite of the setbacks to health, finances, or geography.

 

PB: Well, with all the other baggage I’ve unwittingly brought into this relationship, I think the one thing that I have that makes it work is flexibility. That sounds weird, considering how often I freak out when things don’t go the way I wanted them to, but where it’s important, I’m pretty good at just rolling with it.

 

DH: Nobody could ever accuse you of being static. As a teacher, I think you appreciate the importance of always learning. You read a hundred times faster and more often than I do. It’s alarming, and it’s a thing I wish I was able to do. I think that part of my brain likes to just shut off. Or else it’s what my Mum always warned me would happen if I read too many comic books.

 

PB: Nonsense. I’ve always taken refuge in books and learning, not to say at all that you haven’t. But as much focus as I can summon for that, you can actually focus on a single project in a way I find difficult. I can’t turn off the multitasking enough to lay down a good stretch of track like you do. Plus, it helps that you’re ridiculously creative, so you just unspool ideas like no one I’ve ever known.

 

DH: It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s possible to get caught up in a rat’s nest of ideas and connections that I get the creative equivalent of falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole. I think this is at least part of why my time management sucks so bad. I’ve got to get on top of that. Maybe I should start making lists like some of our efficient friends do? Only, I think I’ll probably just ignore them.

 

PB: Luckily, though, your time management doesn’t really have a giant effect on our marriage, except for the stress that it causes you. Honestly, I can cope with it by flexing stuff around it. No biggie.

 

So what’s the most annoying thing I do?

 

 

I’m not saying I’m like this in the kitchen, but kinda yeah.

DH: Probably how you can create amazing dishes, baked goods, or other food and leave the kitchen a titanic mess. Which you say you will clean up, but I usually can’t stand it long enough before I end up doing it. So, on the spectrum of annoying things spouses do, that’s pretty low.

 

PB: That’s true, though I’d like to make a plea that my mess wouldn’t be as big if I had more counter space. Don’t ask me how I think that would work, but I’m sure it would help.

 

DH: We would likely find a way to cover every surface in something, eventually.

 

PB: Face it: If it weren’t for you, we’d soon be snowed under completely by dirty dishes, homework, books, and crap. I’m so grateful for your willingness to pick up my slack on physical chores.

 

There aren’t too many annoying things about you that I can’t attribute to my hyper-tuned autism senses. And you always turn over to stop snoring when I shove your shoulder in the night, so that’s not a big thing.

 

Ironically, I think the most annoying thing is also the thing I most envy, which is your ability to filter out everything going on around you and get lost in what you’re doing. I’m completely unable to ignore the noise and motion of the kids, so I get frustrated sometimes that you don’t notice when I’m struggling to get them to do something. We’re so lucky that you can stay calm through that, though—I sure can’t.

 

DH: When it gets particularly annoying, it probably looks like I’m not paying attention. Which of course is totally an illusion, because I know what’s happening around me at all times.

 

PB: Bah, I say. Bah. All the bah.

 

DH: So do we have the secret to a successful marriage here?

 

PB: I don’t know what a secret it is. We laugh, we work together, we’re honest, we cover each other’s weak spots, we tolerate, and we make room for new ideas, priorities, and experiences.

 

DH: Plus we have these kids.

 

PB: Right. How weird is that.

 

If we could celebrate our anniversary in any way, with money as no object, what would you want to do?‬

 

DH: Fly back to Scotland. Spend time in Aberdeen again, then this time go the rest of the way up, and take a boat across to Ireland. Revisit places we were at before. Follow up with another New Zealand trip, or one to France, or Rome.

 

PB: With or without the kids?

 

DH: You know, if we could fly them in after a romantic weekend, that would be OK. But if money were no object, I’d drop them in the lair of a grandparent or two and ditch.

 

PB: That sounds nice. I’d even be content with something closer to home, like being able to buy ourselves really swanky clothes, then go out for a fancy dinner and a show of some kind, then spend the night in a comfy hotel.

 

DH: Yeah, those are the anniversaries I like. Just recognizing them with alcohol and time together.

 

I make us sound like drunks.

 

PB: Which is funny because I’ve never been drunk.

 

But since money is the only object we lack at the moment, what would you like to do tomorrow?

 

DH: We’re going to go out and get an early bite to eat before catching a 7:10pm screening of Don Jon, of course.

 

PB: Yeah, I could be down with that. You do know how ridiculously lucky I am to have had you for the last 17 years, though, right, Mr. Banks?

 

DH: Right back at you, sweetheart.

 

CandJWedding2

 

 

 

 

Oct 2, 2013 - Psychology, Sex Ed    1 Comment

Right Where I Should Be

Being right where you’re needed is exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also the most rewarding thing in the world, the thing that convinces you that all the trials you’ve endured aren’t just character building, but of redeemable use to other human beings. But I feel like I could happily sleep for a month.

Monday evening, a dear friend was raped. I got the text just as a panel on school pushouts was starting. Instead of mourning and raging at a distance, as I’ve done over the years when faraway friends went through their own trauma, I could do what I’d always wanted–even needed–to do: I quietly stood up, made my apologies, and raced to be with her within 15 minutes.

There’s something profoundly startling to hear your own words coming out of someone else’s mouth. Parents experience it all the time when their own favorite gems emerge from the miniature humans. But those dark thoughts of doubt, self-blame, and instinctive mistrust of your own reactions don’t sound right when you hear them out loud in another voice. She was full of “I shouldn’t have” and “I must have” and “If only.” It was hard to look at those ugly ideas in the light of day, and it gave me pleasure to shoot each one down with precision.

Eventually, she reached the conclusion that she wanted to report the assault. Several of the pieces of her story gave me that bone-deep certainty that this was his modus operandi, and that she wasn’t his first victim. She wasn’t content to be a statistic, and she felt safe enough and angry enough to do what she could to make sure she was his last victim. I worry I influenced her to do this because I wasn’t able to.

I went with her to the hospital, and apparently projected so much authority and right-of-place that it took a few hours for the staff to realize I wasn’t an official advocate from the local sexual assault survivors’ service. I held her hand, I made inappropriate jokes, I explained what would happen next. I told her to ride the waves of emotion without resistance or embarrassment, because fighting them would take energy she’d need for other things.

The one thing I didn’t have to do was advocate for her against skeptical or disrespectful people. Every single person we encountered treated her with credulity, sensitivity, and most of all, kindness. The nurse told us that police department, hospital staff, and survivor services had worked together to create an integrated, victim-centered care system. I want more women in our city to know this is the case. There are so many reasons women don’t report, and fear of bad treatment doesn’t have to be one, at least not here.

All throughout this, and since then, I’ve been able to say the things I wish someone could’ve told me. I don’t think my friend knows how meaningful and precious that chance is. And because if they’re worth saying once, they’re worth repeating, I’ll say them again here:

Nothing you did made him hurt you. You’re not wrong for wanting to find someone. There’s no way you could’ve known that when he agreed to the boundaries you carefully articulated, he wasn’t planning to respect them. You weren’t stupid to find him attractive and trustworthy–he was grooming you and putting on his best show.

You’re not wrong when you think things will never be the same. And the only way through this is forward; there’s no reverse gear in this car. Things and places that used to feel safe won’t feel that way for a while, and whatever you need to do to find comfort and refuge is okay. The sooner you get into therapy, the better. There’s never a need to go through this alone.

There’s no timer on recovery. There are no milestones that you need to achieve in a certain order or by certain calendar marks. You may not want to think about dating again for a good long time. You may want to take back control of your body and your pleasure sooner than you think you should want to, but that’s not wrong or “slutty” or even illogical. All you have to do is live through this at your own speed.

You’re not responsible for anyone else’s feelings, and telling people the truth doesn’t require you to shepherd them through their own emotional responses. People say things in shock that they don’t mean, so don’t invest too much in their first reactions. Some people just can’t make themselves emotionally available for this, and they may offer stuff instead. You’re not obligated to invent things for people who want to help that way.

Finally, you’re part of a not-so-secret society now. Our stories are remarkably similar, no matter how different they are. We’ve shared common thoughts, common physical responses. It’s true–this destroys some people. But it empowers many others, and how you choose to put your experience into action is up to you. And if you’re very lucky, someday you’ll be able to take what you’ve learned and make it work for someone you love, and it’ll all seem strangely worth it. Be sure to thank that person for letting you help.

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