Kids and Consent

A middle school near here had a lockdown today. Not a drill, an honest-to-goodness code red lockdown. I saw the news flash over Twitter that there were reports of shots fired. My heart stopped for about a half-hour. It’s not the school of anyone I know, but it’s close enough to my son’s age to fix in my mind’s eye until police reported the all-clear.

Turns out, it was a 12-year-old boy who called 911 with a locked cell phone (it would only dial an emergency number). It was a prank. A middle-school-aged boy thought it was funny to tell an operator that someone was firing a gun in a full school on a Wednesday morning, three months after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Over 900 students, teachers, administrators, and staff were on lockdown for hours because nobody told a 12 year old never to ever call 911 as a joke, or if they did, he didn’t absorb the lesson.

And now he’s sitting in a jail.

Two other young men are sitting in a jail tonight, too, and will be for at least the next year of their lives, contemplating the horror they wrought on a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio. They didn’t learn the meaning of the word “prank” either. They violated her body and her privacy because they thought it was funny.

How are we failing so completely to teach kids not to make decisions like this, or excuse them as humor?

I certainly don’t have all the answers; I probably don’t even have any good ones. But I want, for a moment, to explore the idea of consent as it relates to children. The current discussion around rape prevention in feminist circles focuses on the word “no” as insufficient, because the responsibility to say it still rests on the victim. If we teach kids that “‘no’ means ‘no,’” but if the victim is incapable of saying “no,” those kids with their miraculously literal (and literally miraculous) minds will understand that no one’s going to stop them.

And not too long from then, they’ll be adults who think no one’s going to stop them. This isn’t a slippery slope; it’s just time elapsing.

I’m the big disciplinarian in our house, and I draw a pretty strict line for my boys to toe. It’s not that the Darling Husband doesn’t have expectations as high as mine, but I think I’m more concerned about them following invisible social strictures, because I had to work so hard at their ages to just figure them out. Part of my mind still thinks I can save my kids the trouble I had by telling them how to maneuver, but I know that’s not the case.

More important to me, though, than whether they’re thoroughly civilized is whether or not they can make a good decision when left to their own devices. When I’m there, I can tell them the processes and rules. When I’m not, I need to know they’re capable of reaching the same conclusion. And just telling them over and over isn’t enough. The trick is, I have to let them do things and make mistakes to convey this lesson. And we parents aren’t very good at allowing a child to make decisions for themselves these days.

The whole endeavor of childhood is currently an exercise in coercion and control, rather than consent. It starts early: mothers who may not have much choice about whether or how to be pregnant or give birth seek to reclaim control by exercising their choice about issues like circumcision and vaccinations. We turn day care and school choice into a major undertaking that continues to be pushed back further and further into infancy–it seems inevitable that parents will consider which schools are accepting applications before attempting to conceive–rather than waiting to see which environment best suits the child’s personality. School attendance and activity is mandatory, with little or no flexibility for the majority of students. Parents who juggle complex schedules don’t consult children about when (or even whether, sometimes) to have lessons, homework, dinner, or bedtime, passing on the lack of control they may experience in their work and social environments.

Parents obviously want what’s best, but the simple fact is that almost no one bothers to obtain a child’s consent for anything. When they do, it often conforms to the illusion of choice, which is a helpful vehicle in speeding through more fundamental objections. Which jacket do you want to wear, red or blue? It’s shower time; here, choose your shower setting and temperature, the color of your towel. Would you prefer carrots or peas as your dinner vegetable? “No” only gets you a restatement of the choices or a deferment, rarely a conversation about why they’re objecting. That’s not surprising; “no” is a powerful word, as kids discover early on, and in a world where they’re so powerless, they often use it without checking to see if it’s really needed, just because it gets a reaction.

I’m not proposing that parents be completely permissive and let their kids boss them around, or be rude, or break all the rules. And I’m certainly not going to relinquish my control as a parent to make judgment calls that keep my kid healthy, safe, or in line with a program that benefits everyone in the family. Sometimes, you’ve just got to take one for the team, and I’d like to think I do a decent job explaining to my sons why that decision is necessary at that time, and when they might next make a decision for themselves.

But if taking a shower or eating vegetables or doing math homework is always a matter of when, not if, even when the child has legitimate objections, is it any wonder that our kids don’t know that they can say “no” to a child molester or abductor? What good has it done them before to say “no”? And why should they listen to someone else say “no” when it’s never worked for them when they didn’t want to do something. Silence isn’t the same as consent, but neither is age a replacement for asking.

Mar 18, 2013 - Domestic Engineering    3 Comments

From A Mother of Sons

BoysHugging

When the ultrasound tech asked if we wanted to know the sex of our second child, we said yes. We’d already decided with our first son that the advice that made the most sense was that which suggested that we’d mourn the child who didn’t show up if we waited until birth to find out. I’d been so sick with both pregnancies: 20 hours a day for 5 1/2 months with the first one, and 24 hours a day for what would end up being 7 1/2 months with the second.

I still had hopes of joining the great matriarchal line of my family with a daughter of my own, and I’d been suffering badly with this pregnancy. So when it didn’t even feel like the tech had touched the ultrasound wand to my belly before she announced, “It’s a boy,” I burst out crying. “No, no! He’s okay! Everything looks fine!” she said in a frantic rush, as if she’d never before had a wildly hormonal woman on her table.

“I’m not worried,” I said, waving at the Darling Husband for a tissue. “It’s just another goddamned boy!”

It took me several years to come to peace with the fact that I am, for better or for worse, a Mother of Sons. All my dreams of braids and warrior women and Girl Scouts were exchanged for a clothing section 1/3 the size of the girls’ one and a future of ripe smells and gross habits.

Where I found that hard-won peace, though, was this: I was born to raise sons who are ready to be good men in this world of ours. And they’re amazing so far, if I do say so myself. The people they are have already changed how I feel about so many things, much like Ohio Senator Rob Portman has been changed by the experience of raising a gay son, as we learned this week. And if who we know changes who we are, I’m sure they’re changed by knowing a mother like me. (If only other men would have the transformative experience of knowing a woman….)

Especially this week, it feels like the next generation of men has a great deal to correct for their forebears. So this is my promise to the world, ten years after I began this great endeavor of mothering boys:

I am raising sons who will know that the best way to stop rape is to not rape.

I am raising sons who will wonder why anything would fail the Bechdel Test.

I am raising sons who will believe that consent of every kind is an inalienable human right.

I am raising sons who will stand on the side of love for everyone.

I am raising sons who will know that a mother has a woman’s body and everything that goes with one.

I am raising sons who will not be grossed out by breastfeeding.

I am raising sons who will be capable of comforting without fixing.

I am raising sons who will know how to take criticism and blame as easily as credit.

I am raising sons who will value their own bodies as much as those of others.

I am raising sons who will prefer their romantic encounters in the 1st person plural: “We,” not “I.”

I am raising sons who will leave the damn seat down and dry.

I am raising sons who will know the pleasures of folding warm laundry and cooking for loved ones.

I am raising sons who will understand that all bodies should be as varied and valued as all minds.

I am raising sons who will treat the names and images of fellow humans with as much care as their own.

I am raising sons who will reject carelessness that approaches maliciousness.

I am raising sons who will derive power from the happiness, not control, of others.

Mar 17, 2013 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Relics of a Well-Spent Life

In a massive storm on the Eastern Seaboard in the 1800s, the deadliest and most destructive until Hurricane Sandy hit last year, residents of one seaside community reported watching one house lifted right off its foundations by the storm surge. The house then sailed back out on the waves, fully intact and upright, until it crossed out of sight on the horizon. It was never seen again, but the owner (so the story goes) found precisely one china plate from her mother’s heirloom set in the sand two miles down the beach in the days after the storm.

It’s very trendy to say that one could really do without every thing they own. We downsize, we donate, we do with less, and we feel very virtuous about it. “Stuff just weighs you down,” we say, and we’re not wrong. Objects are attachments that keep us from being fully mobile, fully free.

I’d be lying if I said I’d never contemplated a merry blaze as I cleaned up one more piece of homework, one more sock, one more crayon. We have things in a storage unit back in Wisconsin that we haven’t seen since we moved almost three years ago, and I can’t honestly say I’ve missed many of them. And there’s certainly more in this apartment than we truly need; the difficulty actually comes with disposing of much of it–where can it go, if recycling isn’t possible when reducing, but contributing stuffed animals and kitchen implements to a landfill?

I’ve even trained myself out of several things I thought I could never do without. I used to answer the “What would you save in a fire?” question quickly: “My photos.” Never mind that they took up four heavy crates, I had plans as early as high school for how to throw them out onto the lawn before seeking refuge myself. Now, I’m okay with digital files instead of physical prints. I still have files upon files of papers from my grad school and teaching days, but much like my photos, if I could get them all scanned and searchable, it would be a joy to cart them to the recycling center. And I’m even adjusting to not owning a physical object that contains my music and makes it portable. I might even believe in The Cloud someday.

DeathAutographBut I have a collection of precious objects that I’m not willing to part with. They come from creators and givers who’ve provided years of joy and inspiration. Many of them are signed books or CDs, inscribed with my name and personal messages. I’ve had people in line tell me that I was an idiot for asking for personalized signatures–”It’s worthless now!” they said as they saw my name on it.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Relics are common in every world religion, but they play a unique role in Christian belief. Because Jesus’ death and resurrection are the primary incidents of divine intervention at the core of the faith, it was believed that saints who chose to die for their faith rather than save themselves through abjuration were touched by God at the moment of their deaths as well. This transformed the graveyards of martyrs from unclean and unlucky places into the homes of the divinely touched dead. The celebration and white clothes of early Christian mourners, as they paid homage in the unsafe burial grounds outside city walls, made ancient pagans very uncomfortable, yet another reason they rejected the Jesus cult for so long.

Ancient people also believed that the location of a past miracle actually raised the chances of another miracle occurring in the same place, rather than our modern notions of lightning never striking the same place twice. If death is the ultimate miracle, than the remains of the dead become the ultimate location for a potential repeat. And the fact that those remains made that miraculous location physically portable was just the icing on the morbid cake. If you could carry an object with you that made you more likely to have a personal experience with God, it’d be hard to pass that up.

I’m certainly not claiming that any of the objects that mean so much to me are divine connections, but they do serve as concrete links to to a moment of human contact I shared with someone I love and admire. Friday night, Darling Husband and I went on a date to see a radio show taping featuring comic Paula Poundstone and musician Robyn Hitchcock (of The Soft Boys and the Egyptians fame). Robyn’s music was part of the soundtrack of my high school and college years, and Paula’s comedy was one of the earliest bonding experiences with the DH after he moved to the States 16 years ago. I had stuffed my two favorite CDs and a Pretty Good Joke Book from Prairie Home Companion into my tiny purse, on the off chance that we got to meet them, but after waiting for more than a half-hour after the show, it seemed less likely. I bugged one of the staff members, explained how one of the CDs was an incredibly rare bootleg of a concert booked under a different name. They said Paula was probably taking off, but Robyn would be out in a bit.

RobynHSo when both came out the door, I sort of blanked. I totally forgot about the Joke Book, and started telling her about how the DH and I met, and the funny lines that have become in-jokes between us. She seemed genuinely pleased, thanked us for the kind story, and happily signed our show program to the both of us. With Robyn, I had a whole extended conversation about the bootleg, and the cover art of the other CD which had been modified in the second pressing, and as random and delightful a variety of subjects as I would hope from the godfather of surreal UK proto-punk and alt-pop. I explained how my boys enjoyed when I sang one of his songs to them, and he scrutinized the picture of them I showed him. He asked their names, and took a funny picture with me.

By the time we left the theater, I was shaking and teary at how kind and engaged both stars were to an obviously flustered mega-fan. And I was holding onto two more precious relics. They’ll never show up on eBay or any other fan site for sale; their meaning is entirely personal. But whenever I touch them and look at the inscriptions, they collapse the time between when those marks were made and when I’ll be in the future, bringing the joy and miracle of human contact fully back into the material present.

People are right that I don’t need objects or photos to remember important moments. There’s no doubt I’ll remember that moment any less clearly in 20 years than what I had for breakfast the morning before. My autistic memory is indelible and visual, so it’s even less trouble for me than for many people to pull up the images and conversations that left deep impressions. But my brain is also highly sensitive to sensory memory, so the touch of a CD jewel box, or the sound of a mixtape, or a porcelain statue, or the silky pages of a graphic novel evoke an even stronger sense of time and place.

These precious objects perform the miracle of bringing past joy into the present; that magic is wrought through the application of a Sharpie and a moment of human interaction. And as my collection of relics grows, I know that I could no more part with these attachments than with the experiences that created them.

WitsSwag

Mar 13, 2013 - Physical Ed, Psychology    1 Comment

Darkness, My Old Friend

The house is so quiet, the ticking clock sounds like drumbeats. Darling Husband is blessed with sleep when and where he wants it. The boys are sleeping again after a mumbled request for help getting the blankets resituated. Even the cat is asleep peacefully in the lining of my motorcycle jacket.

But I’m awake. This is the third night in a row I’ve failed to sleep past 3:00 a.m..

I wish it were unusual.

Sleep and I have a complicated relationship. I remember being insomniac as young as nine years old, so there’s something very deeply rooted in me that conflicts with sleep. In terms of basic biology, my fibromyalgia both requires more sleep to prevent pain and provides pain which prevents me from getting more sleep. The less sleep I get, the more I hurt–it’s as simple as that. I’ve also had a sleep study done, and was told I have the worst sleep architecture the tech had ever seen. At various points, I averaged only 20 minutes a night in REM sleep, which is where restoration takes place. It feels like a well that never refills.

I have a feeling my sleep architecture looks something like the top one.

No fewer than two dozen doctors have told me how important “sleep hygiene” is to beating insomnia. I’ve looked at them with flat eyes and nodded grimly. They don’t understand this at all. I have a bedtime routine, mostly built around a few minutes reading a trashy romance. The easy-to-understand story and comforting predictability help me downshift from my brain’s day speed to one where I can finally fall asleep. I need dark, the white noise of a fan, covers (no matter how hot it is, I can’t sleep without the pressure of at least a sheet or afghan), and luck. None of this is uncommon to autistics, as I understand.

I’m faced with the oceanic expanse of unfilled hours more frequently than I’d like. As many before me have joked, the one thing we really need are more hours of the day to consider all the choices we’ve made in our lives. But I’m fairly happy with the choices I’ve made, so it’s memories that play in my head when the world has put its many stimuli to sleep for the night. I fill that space with books and documentaries. Sometimes I write, or stitch, or crochet, or visit with friends who are also awake. I trying to teach myself not to fear I’ll wake up even more fully. Some theories even say a broken night’s sleep is historically A Thing.

At the root of my problem with sleep and the dark, still hours is this: I listen. Constantly. Hypervigilance is real, and very difficult to control. I listen for children’s cries–even those of babies long since grown. I listen for creaks and shudders, and the hollow sound of a door or window sliding open, even though I know they’re firmly locked. I listen for the crackle of fire, or the sudden crash of disaster, always ready to spring into action. I listen for the faint whine of the TV that tells me Connor’s awake in the night too, perpetuating the cycle of insomnia for another generation. I listen for the phone, and count the souls in peril–physical or mental–and ward against a fateful call.

Right now, I can’t sleep because it’s been exactly one year since Connor was actively suicidal. I lived the months of February and March last year constantly waiting, listening, and wondering this: “Could I get to him fast enough to save him?” This weekend will mark the one-year anniversary of his entry into the partial hospitalization program that saved his life. He’s been at the highest behavior level at school for 21 straight school days. Things couldn’t be more different this March than they were last March.

But my body doesn’t know that. My body remembers that, when the last snows come and go, and the ground and air are saturated with moisture and possibility, I must remain alert. I can’t afford to sleep, the memories embedded in my bones say. This is the time you need to watch, listen, wait. Fear. Hope. Pray. I have other memories seated deeply in my body too, ones that make me tense in May more than 20 years after my sexual assault, or the tension that rides me on and off in the summer, when the heat triggers memories of my helpless, hopeless season a few years back. My mind can fold things away, but my bones and flesh remember.

So sleep and I are more sparring partners than friends, but I’m okay with that. I don’t get much solitude in my life, and insomnia certainly provides that in abundance. And maybe the lesson is that it’s not worth fighting with stubbornness and medication and “sleep hygiene.” This is me, and I don’t sleep like normal people. What do I get for it? Memories long buried, the surety that everyone I love is safe for tonight, and the intimate knowledge of the heart-deep chambers of night’s darkness.

When Spring Isn’t Spring

The sanctuary of White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church (photo by Pete Seeger (no, I don’t know if it’s *that* Pete Seeger)).

My favorite thing about my church is the massive wall of windows in the sanctuary. They look out on the woods of oak and birch that surround one side of the building. I always make sure we’re sitting on the side that looks out that magnificent window. It’s the thing that most settles me into a sacred state of mind.

I love that my church home gives my family and me the community of faith that was the backbone and most important legacy of my upbringing in the Methodist church, while still embracing my personal faith in nature-based Wiccan pagan theo/thealogy. And the window is like the lodestone in my compass of the year, where I watch the parade of seasons caught in the same frame.

For a few weeks, I’ve been pointing out to the boys that the gusty winds were blowing off the last of Fall’s dead leaves to make room for the first Spring buds. But this week, I was so stunned by the apparent lack of progress in temperature and Spring-like disposition, I was moved to write a poem. (It may be terrible; I hardly ever share my poetry, so I don’t have a good sense of how it rates.)

Spring suffered a setback today.

Flurries fell and danced like dervishes

      in the parking lot.

Cold crept under my soles and

      froze my winter-pale toes.

 

Birch trees that, only seven days ago,

      seemed ready to move their magic

            above ground,

      now look tightly shuttered,

            their yellow-green hazy life still locked away.

 

This frigid season will visit a bit longer,

      and feels quite comfortably at home

though its hosts wish it long gone.

 

Spring,

      waiting politely in the driveway

            for its turn in the guest room,

must wait.

When I was in college, I had the great good fortune to see Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. speak on campus. He was as hilarious, irreverent, and insightful as his books. I wish I remember more of what he discussed, but just one thing has survived the years and leaks of memory.

He said we have our seasons all wrong. January and February, those are really Winter, when it’s cold as hell, he said. And May and June are really Spring, that glorious warm, flowery season. July and August are really Summer, when it’s hot as hell. And September and October are really Fall, all crisp and fruitful and wonderful.

But March and April aren’t wonderful and flowery. They’re cold and rainy and squishy and miserable, which isn’t our idea of Spring at all. But what the Earth is doing in those months is necessary for the glory of Spring and Summer to follow. He called it The Unlocking. And November and December aren’t really Winter–they’re frigid and gusty, without the beautiful white covering to hide the brown shades of dead grass and bracken. And that season, Vonnegut said, the one that protects the earth from true Winter, is called The Locking.

Perhaps the reason this explanation is the only thing that’s stuck with me from his visit is that it’s the most sensible description of the Wheel of the Year I’ve ever heard. March isn’t really Spring, and the sooner we stop expecting it to be, the happier we’ll all be. This is when the Earth unlocks itself for magic. Suddenly, the rain and sleet, the slush and melt, all seem much more tolerable.

Fix the Break

A week or so ago, I had a Brilliant Plan (TM). We’re making arrangements to take the whole family, our two sons included, to Origins this year. I’m beyond excited, but there’s a lot of apprehension there too. It’ll be the boys’ first con, and the first one I’ve been able to attend in several years.

It’ll also be the first con I’ve attended since I’ve known about my autism, and I expect that to be a revelation on a number of different fronts. I’ll be more attentive to the waves of sensory info coming in, and more patient with my preoccupation with the textures and graphic design of the costumes and games I see. I’ll understand why the exhibit hall and the crowded hallways between events take such a toll on my patience and energy. I’ll be more aware of how my autism affects my user experience of new systems and products. And I’ll be more mindful of how the chaos of the con environment uses up my available energy, focus, and physical reserves.

In the past, if I needed a sensory break from the crowds and chaos of large gaming rooms and the overwhelming stimuli of the exhibit hall, I had to schlep all the way back to my hotel room. Once there, the odds of actually returning diminish rapidly. When I finally stop moving so much, the tidal wave of pain and sensation I’ve been holding at bay swamps me, and I realize how much I’m hurting and tired. I can’t even think of going back to the convention center until I’ve had significant rest after that. It hurts to miss valuable time with friends I don’t see the rest of the year, but it hurts more to keep moving, to keep fighting my environment.

This year, I’m trying to do something about this. I’ve submitted proposals to both Origins and Gen Con–the two conventions I’m planning to attend this year–to establish a Sensory Break Room for people who are physically or mentally challenged by the rigorous environment of the con.

Part of this is wholly selfish. I don’t want to have to leave the convention center when (not if) my son needs a sensory break. I don’t want to have to go all the way back to our hotel room, where I know I’ll have fights over whether and when we go back, and why we don’t just stay and play XBox or something just between ourselves. He’ll be anxious and overwhelmed, literally by the amount of fun and multitude of choices available. And I don’t want to fight about whether we spend time at the place we came to spend time at.

The other part is more generous. If people like my son and I could really benefit from a room near the center of action where we can decompress for a few minutes, thereby gaining a few hours more of “on” time, I know we’re not the only ones who could use it. As people become more aware of neurodiversity, true introversion, and other conditions that make con activities challenging, it seems like the next logical step for adaptive services is to offer a nearby room where folks can go to recharge their batteries. Much as there are now nursing rooms available for moms who take their babies to cons, I think sensory break rooms are the future of necessary accessibility options for con attendees.

But what do I mean by a “sensory break room”? Let me do the negative definition before the positive one. It won’t be a hangout for people who just need a seat. It won’t be a quiet place to play quiet games. It won’t be a craft room for game widow(er)s looking for company. It won’t be a nursing or babysitting room.

The room will be screened off, instead of requiring users to open and close a clanky door. The lights will be kept quite low, probably too low to read properly, but there may be some soft, shifting colored lights to focus on. No music or other noise will be permitted, but a small fan or ionizer will run to provide white noise as an auditory buffer. Nobody will bug anyone else, but neither is it a nap room. If someone falls asleep, the monitor will wake them up after five or ten minutes, and each user will be responsible if they accidentally sleep through an event they’re supposed to attend. I’m hoping that the folks most likely to use it will be generous in bringing some adaptive tools to share–weighted blankets, exercise balls, fidgets, and other comforting objects. 

There won’t be a cost to use this space–I would no sooner charge for access to a wheelchair ramp than I would for access to this room–and its primary function will be as a room to decompress. Even just 15 minutes for most people gets them back another 2 to 3 hours of time to participate in con activities. The importance of this downtime cannot be overstated for making it a successful event for a significant number of people.

I’ve had a very good response from folks on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, and I’m hoping that enough positive pressure on the Origins and Gen Con organizers can help us achieve a pilot test for this resource. I’m trying to figure out whether it’s possible to get enough con-goers to volunteer for a shift monitoring the room while it’s open (probably 10am-6pm Thursday thru Saturday), or whether I should see if I can get the local Autism Societies to get a few folks who would be willing to work a two-hour shift each day in exchange for a four-day badge. Either way, I’m also trying to pull together some of the best game designers/GMs in the industry to run “reward games” for the folks who put in the time to make this resource work well.

Think about that look–you know the one–when you see someone about ready to meltdown in the middle of the dealer hall, or at a game table in a deafening room of other game tables. No, grownups don’t throw temper tantrums the way kids do, but you can see the tightening in their shoulders, their jaws. Their eyes get wide, flash around to scan the room for exits and clocks to tell when they get to escape. They get snippy, impatient, or they shut down entirely: “My character just goes along with everybody else.”

There’s a way to avoid that happening quite so often. A room to decompress in, to take that break from the light and noise and sights and crowds, can stave off those sudden attacks. There are still kinks and details in the plan to work out, but I hope it sounds like a good idea to enough people that we can start to leverage some positive pressure on the con organizers. Whether or not you’re going, please communicate to Origins and Gen Con organizers that you think that this resource is valuable and worth accommodating in the outskirts of the main convention area.

Sometimes you have to break to get put back together. This year, we can provide a safe space for our fellow gamers to do that.

Mar 6, 2013 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Why Be An Activist?

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Because only people who want to show up, show up. No bad attitudes.

Because by coming together on a specific issue, the group has already self-selected by common interest, so you’re likely to like the people you volunteer with.

Because when people are already there to help other people, they make the best kind of friend.

photo-3

Because you never know whom you’ll meet when you announce your allegiance.

Because you’ll never feel as appreciated as when you share your unique talents for a common cause.

Because if you can, you’ll be standing up for yourself and someone who can’t.

Because you get to tell your own story, and who doesn’t love to talk about themselves?

Because it restores your faith in beauty, truth, and love.

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Because smiling while you protest makes the opposition nervous.

Because your experience and your presence are unique, meaningful, and needed.

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Because the halls of power belong to you.

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Because revolutions have laughter and dancing and good snacks (or at least they should, if they’re good ones).

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Because when you’re in a crowd, marching and chanting with one voice, you are unbelievably powerful.

Pride at Capitol

Because there aren’t many activities in life where everyone wins equally, no matter how much they put in.

Because you don’t have to be good to do good.

Because there’s a good chance your parent, grandparent, or ancestor wasn’t allowed to speak out like you can.

Because, while the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, it ain’t there yet.

Because we all do better when we all do better.

Show and Mattel

I know the Internet is designed to inspire fury. That hasn’t been the majority of my experience with it, but lately, it seems determined to correct my underestimation of its rage-inducing qualities.

So before I proceed with this post, please go read this article about why Mattel thinks moms don’t “get” toy cars. Go ahead–I’ll wait for you.

Thanks for taking the time to do that. You may or may not be seething with anger right now. If you’re not, that’s okay, but I’m going to explain why I (and several other mothers I know) are. Let me put on my sherpa hat.

PROBLEM #1: THERE’S A VP AT MATTEL FOR “BOYS’ TOYS AND GAMES.” I’m the mother of two boys, and I’ll be the first to say that they play with different toys, in different ways, than many girls would. Griffin was about nine months old when he distinctly said “Vroom” to a squishy car toy which none of us had yet bothered to introduce to him by name or sound.

But I’ve been told I “play wrong” for a girl since I was two years old. Imagine that: TWO YEARS OLD. That’s the year I saw Star Wars on a drive-in movie screen and was hooked for life. All my friends in preschool were boys, because they would play what I wanted to. In sixth grade, my teacher introduced me to games of war and strategy, and I was hooked once again. I went on to be the only girl among 23 boys in the Strategy and Tactics Club in high school, and I was very happy there. I never felt left out or isolated because I was doing what came naturally to me.

Even as an adult, I’ve mainly played games with men, but the many women gamers I’ve played with over the years were as viciously cutthroat as they needed to be to succeed. If anything, we were more terrifying because we collaborated to do awful things, and we needed to set down our needlework or knitting to wipe out whole parties of monsters or even the roof of a building once. “Knit one, purl one…natural 20…I kill it. A lot.”

There’s no such thing as “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys.” There are just boys and girls who play with toys. Whichever ones they pick, they’re doing it right. It’s okay to appeal to some of the differences between the genders, but the pink-and-blue-washing needs to stop NOW. If you want to see how a company can tailor toys for greater appeal and accessibility to one gender or another, consider the upcoming “girls’ line” of Nerf toys, which feature ergonomic adjustments to make them easier to use, as well as styles that correspond to popular culture models like Katniss and Merida. Disney should follow their advice with the Marvel line–I know a whole lot of girls and women who will happily fork over for some good Marvel toys, games, and apparel.

PROBLEM #2: HE FELT THE NEED TO EXPLAIN TO A ROOM FULL OF MOTHERS WHY THEY WERE DOING THEIR JOB WRONG. There are many ways mothers do do their jobs wrong, and society isn’t shy about telling us so. We know we’re not perfect, but unless you’re the sort of mom who’s likely to end up in court, you’re trying very hard to do your best. The days of the pretty moms who won’t lie down on the floor in their crinolines and frilly aprons to play with kids of both genders are past. I play with my boys, and I play hard. I certainly don’t need a toy executive to tell me how to make my kids happy or have a good time.

Moms are bad enough on themselves and each other. Tiger Moms, Princess Moms, Geek Moms, Stay-At-Home Moms, Working Moms…we’re all being told we’re doing it wrong, that our kids will end up in therapy for sure if we don’t buy them the right things and hover over them like paranoid black helicopters every second of the day. Petersen’s voice shouldn’t be in this discussion at all, let alone lecturing a room full of “mommy bloggers,” whatever the hell that sexist, reductive label means.

PROBLEM #3: HE THINKS THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY TO PLAY WITH TOY CARS. This one particularly burns my ass, because I know from experience that he’s wrong. When I was a kid, I played with toy cars by lining them up in perfectly symmetrical, parallel rows, sorted by shape, size, and color. Then my sister would walk through the lines like Godzilla, kicking them to kingdom come. And then I would line them up again in different patterns. I picked my favorites by the way they felt in my palm, my closed fist.

I realize that much of this comes from my autism. But I know I’m not the only one who didn’t play smash ‘n crash all the time. In fact, most of the boys I knew didn’t play with their favorite cars at all–they set them on a high shelf where they’d be safe and beautiful. Petersen’s model of play is a marketer’s one, not a player’s one. If you smash your cars all the time, your parents have to buy you new ones all the time. Planned obsolescence is not a game.

PROBLEM #4: HE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND WHY KIDS WOULD RATHER PLAY WITH OTHER TOYS. Finally, Petersen doesn’t understand why toy cars are less relevant today. The problem lies in a few areas. If a kid wants to pretend with cars these days, why would you want to drive a four-inch replica across the berber carpet when you can boot up the XBox or Playstation or 3DS and actually feel like you’re driving a real car? Why play with a pre-made car when you can build your own models?

Cars have the same problem I see occasionally with “action playsets”: they’re single-use toys. There are only so many ways you can play with a toy car, or with the Spiderman 3 Sandstorm Action Playset. You basically get to recreate one storyline, and then you’re done. The reason action figures and dolls are more popular is because you can tell infinite stories with them. An imaginative kid (i.e., all of them) doesn’t even need every action figure, because one character can be many characters. LEGO offers another solution to this problem by offering single-use builds with infinite rebuilding potential. Who wouldn’t rather play any story you can think of, rather than “They drive somewhere. Along the way, they crash into something”? According to child development expert Penny Holland, single-purpose toys are far more damaging to our kids’ minds than toy guns. Think about that for a second.

The graph in the Bloomberg article suggests an even more interesting quandary to consider: There’s a gender gap in board games too. According to their statistics, 46 percent of girls between ages 6 and 12 list board games as their favorite toy, as opposed to only 33 percent of boys. I’d be interested to know which games girls are playing, because we’re past the days of the Barbie Dreamdate Board Game (which I played, I’ll have you know, and ended up marrying Poindexter in real life). 

Board games aren’t even strongly marketed, as far as I can tell, for one gender or another. RPGs (tabletop, video, and online) are, though, and I’d be interested to see a more nuanced breakdown of a wider variety of games. I’d also like to know whether the gender gap among young girls and boys who play board games correlates to the education gap–there may be room for board games to help boys catch up on certain academic and social skills that they aren’t getting enough support for in schools that have to teach to the test.

All this fury has direction. We don’t have to settle for executives trying to sell our kids crappy toys. We know what our kids like, and we should put our money where their preferences are. Play has the capacity to teach and to heal, as well as to entertain. As parents, we shouldn’t settle for anything less.

Witchin’ in the Kitchen

I wrote this essay almost 15 years ago, deeper in the dark of winter than I am right now. But at a friend’s request, and because every word of it still rings as true today as it did when I wrote it. The only thing that’s changed in all this time is that I’m a better, more inspired cook than I was when I was just starting out. I’ve delved into ethnic cuisines, and I’ve learned to trust my senses and my reading skill when combining ingredients. That’s another kind of magic: the confidence that comes with age and practice. But that’s a different blog post.

*****

The time for ritual is at hand. I stand in the place of my power, tools of the magic I will work laid out before me– silver, wood, and steel. Fire and water are at my command, earth and air held back by my will. In this time, I will draw on the forces of creation, shaping elements. Here, I am an alchemist, a hand of the goddess herself.

For I am a kitchen witch.

I embrace this title proudly, despite lingering associations with the silly wizened dolls on brooms available at most craft fairs. As a name, it covers it all–my faith, my pleasure, the locus of my greatest power. No hallowed circle, no standing stones could imbue me with more strength or more possibilities. One friend firmly maintains that, when it comes to the Craft, if I can’t do it with Morton’s salt and a wooden spoon, it can’t be done.

While I am not so bold as to commit to such a statement myself, the power of the kitchen, and what it summons and creates, is not to be denied. Though I began down the path of Wicca in solitude, I learned the magic of cooking as all good magics are best learned : at the elbow of a wise and laughing grandmother. The rules were simple. Wash your hands. Clean as you go. Read the whole recipe before you start. Measure with care. And, most importantly, share the joy as often as possible–that’s why there are always enough beaters and spatulas and bowls for everyone. If you abide by that last rule, no spills or scorches can spell failure. Just vacuum up the oatmeal, wash the egg out of your hair, and laugh about the fun you had.

I know, it doesn’t sound much like the holy tenets of any faith, or even much of a New Age philosophy. But the results simply could not be missed. Even as a child, I recognized the phenomenal power of what we created in that tidy sanctuary of counters and appliances. We’re talking full sensory miracles here, folks. The smell hits you when you walk in the door, enveloping you in a warm blanket of knowledge that, here, you will not go hungry. Someone cares enough to spend time and energy to refresh and nourish you. That simple understanding, at the most primal level, cuts loose the weight of the world, letting your spirit rise. The sight of flushed skin and flour smudges brings light and laughter, and sneaky little dips into aromatic steam and unfinished delights allow you to keep a greedy secret that heightens anticipation. All these things seal the feeling of community as you finally join in the simple pleasure of sharing tastes, sensations, and satisfaction, even if only with one other person. No wonder “communion” takes place with food in so many religions.

But I have to be honest about something, and it’ll probably blow the lid right off any sort of “kitchen witch mystique” I may have managed to build. I am no gourmet. I’ve never taken a cooking class. Those brownies which my friends and co-workers steadfastly maintain are the best they’ve ever tasted? Betty Crocker, Fudge Supreme, $2.49 with coupon. That chili whose aroma wafts out like tickling fingers when I open the door on a cold winter night, drawing my husband in all the quicker? Packet of spices, canned beans and tomatoes. Simmer on low for 20 minutes. That’s it. And I’ve never made a secret of it.

The rave reviews continue, with every potluck dish and party treat. Is it because I always stir clockwise, letting goodwill flow into the smooth batters and sauces? Most likely not. And I’d feel terribly silly if I sprinkled water and invocations over my electric oven to ward off burnt bottoms or mushy middles. My power as a kitchen witch, so far as I can tell, comes solely the enjoyment I take in doing something simple that will produce happiness in others. As I skim my finger down the well-worn page of my favourite cookbook, I’m already thinking of the smiles and hums of pleasure that my “magic potion” will summon into existence. As I clean shortbread dough from my utensils and fingernails, I can already hear the surprised exclamations of delight ringing in the doorway as visitors first hit that gorgeous wall of aroma. And hours later, after the cupboards are closed and the counters are clean, I can still smell the lingering scent of crushed herbs and sweet essences on my fingers, and I fold them beneath my nose and breathe prayers of thanksgiving for the chance to bring joy to those I’ve fed.

So I may not always remember all the poetic invocations when I call the Watchtowers in a Circle, but I remember the favourite food for every loved one in my life, and most of the recipes. And so I might be dreadful at keeping a proper herbal grimoire stocked–my spice racks are the envy of all who survey. I consider myself well on the road to the Lord and Lady’s wisdom, because I know the seat and value of a generous, abundant power within myself, one of the greatest signposts on everyone’s spiritual journey. And when I get there, I’ll be sure to have a dish to pass.

Mar 1, 2013 - AV Club    No Comments

Cover to Cover

I absolutely adore cover songs (originally done by one band, then performed by others). In fact, I’ve got a whole playlist full of them on my phone. Whether they’re irreverent reinterpretations or faithful homages, the combination of one band’s music and another band’s sound is an alchemy that often amounts to more than just the sum of its parts.

A lot of them come from movie and TV soundtracks, because often music directors know which songs they want, but the licensing costs of getting the original would cost the whole movie’s music budget. Lots of great Beatles and Bob Dylan songs make it into shows, but they’re almost always performed by someone else. Heck, even the movie Singin’ In The Rain is basically a movie full of covers. The downside of this, though, is that many soundtrack songs aren’t available as singles

If you know someone else who enjoys messing around with music, a purchased playlist on iTunes would make a pretty awesome gift (though not all songs are available there; some are from a few rare CDs I have).

Dancing Queen by Luka Bloom (orig. ABBA)

Under the Milky Way by Strawpeople (orig. The Church)

Sea of Love by Tom Waits (orig. The Honeydrippers)

Flume by Peter Gabriel (orig. Bon Iver)

Love Song by 311, from 50 First Dates (orig. The Cure)

Enjoy the Silence by Tori Amos (orig. Depeche Mode)

The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead by Crash Test Dummies, from Dumb and Dumber (orig. XTC)

Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want by The Dream Academy, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (orig. The Smiths)

So. Central Rain by Hem (orig. R.E.M.)

When Doves Cry by Quindon Tarver, from William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (orig. Prince)

She’s Not There by Neko Case & Nick Cave, from True Blood, S4 Ep1 (orig. The Zombies)

Toxic by Nickel Creek (orig. Britney Spears)

You Keep Me Hangin’ On by Kim Wilde (orig. The Supremes)

Just Like Heaven by The Watson Twins, used in True Blood S1 Ep7 (orig. The Cure)

I Melt With You by Jason Mraz, from 50 First Dates (orig. Modern English)

Higher Ground by Red Hot Chili Peppers (orig. Stevie Wonder)

Head On by The Pixies (orig. The Jesus and Mary Chain)

Bizarre Love Triangle by Frente! (orig. New Order)

Hurt by Johnny Cash (orig. Nine Inch Nails)

Everybody Knows by Concrete Blonde, used in Pump Up The Volume (orig. Leonard Cohen)

Dead Souls by Nine Inch Nails, from The Crow (orig. Joy Division)

Lips Like Sugar by Seal, from 50 First Dates (orig. Echo and the Bunnymen)

Wild Horses by The Sundays, used in Buffy the Vampire Slayer S3 Ep20  (orig. The Rolling Stones)

Pale Blue Eyes by R.E.M. (orig. The Velvet Underground)

Sweet Jane by Cowboy Junkies (orig. The Velvet Underground)

I Will Survive by Cake (orig. Gloria Gaynor)

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