Tagged with " self-esteem"
Mar 11, 2016 - Physical Ed    5 Comments

This Belly

 

A white, fat, woman's belly

This belly is fat, and it’s mine. I own it. I earned it.

And I hate it.

I feel it around me like sandbags as I walk and sit and lie down. It oozes over my waistband. It forms doughy rolls inside my shirt. It pushes clumps of flesh into folds on my back. It rubs my skin against itself until constellations of tiny skintags form in protest. I look at tintype photos of the distortion of bone and organ caused by Victorian corseting, and I calculate how breathless I could stand to be to force that belly out of sight.

 

L0038404 Illustrations to denounce the crimes of the corset Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org 2 Illustrations to denounce the crimes of the corset and how it cripples and restricts the bodily organs in women. Engraving 1908 Published: - Printed: 10th October 1908 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

This belly comes from my ancestors. I was never cuddled by skinny, bony mothers or grandmothers. All my people are soft and jolly and restful to exhausted children at the end of a day’s play. That gentle flesh came from Ireland’s oatmeal and Poland’s potatoes. It weathered diet candy chews and scales and low-fat, no-fat endurance tests—this softness is stronger than them all.

My mother never said a kind word about her body in my entire life. When I admired her beauty-queen crown, she told me how her thick ankles almost cost her the prize. When I asked her how she danced to the music she taught me to love, she whispered how a ‘60s shimmy with her young, large, innocent breasts got her kicked out of the YMCA dance. When I told her I thought she was the best secretary in the world, she bemoaned her broad hips and butt, shaped by years of day-in day-out office chairs and Diet Coke.

I was barely five when people started exclaiming how much I looked like my mother. Now when I look in the mirror, I see her body, the one she taught me to despise. And I do.

This belly comes from my survival. I wasn’t small as I grew into adulthood—5’10” by the time I graduated from high school, size 12 in my wedding dress at 21—but I wasn’t terribly big either. The first semester of grad school gave me crushing tension headaches; doctors prescribed an antidepressant that was supposed to help. It helped more than I knew, masking symptoms of oncoming fibromyalgia until the day the medication suddenly, mysteriously stopped working. By that time, I was 75 pounds heavier. The male doctor who prescribed it didn’t think to mention that severe weight gain was common.

Fibro triggered depression; physical and mental anguish became hopelessly tangled. The medication that kept me afloat, active, alive layered fat over my bones. The harder I have tried to be well and happy, the heavier I have grown. I’m told that exercise and getting outdoors more would help my mood, but this belly keeps me from venturing out as much as my pain does. The irony is not lost on me that the medication I take to be happier in my mind makes me unhappier about my body.

This belly comes from my children. One of my midwives told me that babies are very efficient parasites, in and ex utero. She meant to comfort me when I was in month 4 of throwing my guts up 20 hours a day, 7 days a week. I remembered it when my second pregnancy had me sick 24 hours a day for seven and a half months, when I was in the ER for fluids when I couldn’t even keep down water. I only had six weeks to balance a pint of Ben and Jerry’s on the top of my belly, between my breasts, and feel like a proper mother-to-be. I don’t have any of those sideways pregnancy pictures–they didn’t look different enough from my non-pregnancy pictures to be worth taking.

Because I was always tall and heavy, I never had a baby belly that could stop traffic as I crossed the street. Nobody inappropriately rubbed my stomach and asked questions, because none of them could be sure it was pregnancy that stretched my shirts tight. I felt like I needed to be working off my baby weight while I was still pregnant because obesity was on every list of risk factors I was given. And if I couldn’t lose weight when I was throwing up non-stop, losing that baby weight after the boys arrived seemed beyond hopeless.

And my belly comes from food, of course. Bread and tortilla and baguette and pita and bagels. Soup and stew and stroganoff, shawarma and spanakopita. Cheeses: Comté, Cheddar, Delice d’Affinois, Chèvre, Port Salut, Gouda, Midnight Moon, curds so fresh they squeak in my teeth. Pasta, pesto, palak paneer, pho. Dumplings of every gods-given nation on this planet. I adore the craft and kindness of food, its intimate introduction to every kind of culture, the warmest embrace of caretakers everywhere. If I could trade my belly for the world of delicious flavors and spices and surprises, I doubt I’d take the deal.

 

A fat woman in teeshirt and skirt lounging on a couch

So this is my belly, and all the things that made it. It’s where I feel things first–anxiety, relief, fear, welling joy. It presses against snuggling children and beloved friends when they accept my preferred forms of greeting and delight. It catches splashes from the pots and pans where I stir up nourishment and comfort for anyone I feed. It hikes up the back of my shirts when I bend down to garden, giving me unexpected sunburns. It rules out pretty dresses and fashionable clothing. It makes me keep the lights off if I want to feel sexy, even alone.

It’s not going anywhere, if I’m going to be honest. I want to believe people who say I’m beautiful like I am. But I don’t know that I’ll ever make peace with this belly. Like so many things about myself, I can’t love it. But it’s undeniably me.

A fat woman in a life vest, teal hair, and sunglasses, rowing a canoe

Sep 21, 2012 - Social Studies    9 Comments

How Not to Be a Fan

I’ve been open about parts of my identity on this blog that I haven’t felt comfortable “coming out” about almost anywhere else in my life, certainly not all at the same time. And everyone’s been so wonderfully welcoming and encouraging–you’re only making my general lack of brain filter worse! But what I’m about to admit may bring down the flaming hordes of trolls upon me in force.

I’m not sure how to say this, so I’ll just come right out with it (like taking off a band-aid, right?)…

I don’t get fandom. I utterly fail to understand it, on both individual and sociological levels. I am a Bad Fan.

What do I mean by “fandom”? I’m talking about that state of being in which a person enjoys spending time thinking, talking, reading, gathering, and making things about a particular piece of intellectual property, beyond just the time spent engaging with that medium. Those properties might include books, movies, music, sports, collectors’ items, games (video and otherwise), crafts, hobbies, or pastimes.

I truly believe in the broadest, most inclusive definition of ideas such as “fan” and “geek,” and I think the cultural behaviors that characterize traditional “geek culture” appear in a lot more “non-geeky” domains than any of those enthusiasts would expect to find. I also don’t judge among the various sources or expressions of fandom–I’m an equalist in this, as in just about everything else. Don’t try to tell me someone’s doing it wrong, or that something doesn’t “really count.” That just doesn’t hold water with me.

Of course, this is not to say I don’t enjoy and get enthusiastic about things that give me intellectual, creative, or aesthetic pleasure. I clearly do–I’ve enthused about books and music and movies and games and a dozen other things, sometimes with the fervor of a revival-tent preacher. But there’s an uncloseable distance between where I am and the distant shore of fandom.

I love what these ladies created. I even know some of them. And I’d proudly wear one of these costumes. But I can’t imagine ever making one myself.

I am fundamentally boggled by fan behaviors. I don’t understand re-watching or re-reading for the purpose of picking apart, or putting together, or harvesting quotes, or answering questions. I’ve never felt the urge to search or contribute to a wiki, beyond the most basic of research needs. I probably wouldn’t have the patience to wait for hours on end for the chance to see someone I admire. I can’t imagine following a band, performer, author, or artist from tour date to tour date. If I have the occasion to meet one of the people or groups I truly enjoy, I get a little fluttery but I’m conversationally functional, and I’m interested in them as people, not as characters or icons. I love dressing up for the sake of dressing up, but I could never conscience spending the dozens of hours and hundreds (if not thousands!) of dollars it takes to make a quality cosplay costume. Even if I could, there’s no one person I identify with so strongly for whom I’d be willing to pass myself off as a decent representation (this also has a lot to do with the absence of plus-size role archetypes, and my unwillingness to be a “fat” so-and-so).

Like this, but much, much simpler

All of this makes me feel like I’m carrying a shameful secret when someone hails me as a geek. A big circle of the geeky Venn diagram overlaps with the fan circle, and geeks are often graded on their proofs of fan-level devotion. Like any outsider, I have ways of “passing.” I have an excellent memory, which helps, but nothing like my Darling Husband’s capacity for encyclopedic knowledge available for immediate recall. And, more importantly, I empathize and enthuse well. If you’re excited about something you’re sharing, I can be excited for you and with you, and for most people, that’s all the engagement they’re really looking for when they share their fandom. But I also use my abilities to divert conversation from minutiae I know/care nothing for, and when that fails, my considerable skill at turning into a mirror.

Occasionally, this also makes me a Bad Friend. People hear that Jim Butcher introduced me to the Darling Husband, and they immediately launch into deep machinations within the Dresden universe, leaving me far behind. I’ve played some of the games my friends have written or designed, but there are many more I’ve never had the pleasure of enjoying–hell, I haven’t even played Marvel Heroic Roleplaying yet. Many more of these paradoxes litter the landscape of my relationships, and they don’t mean a thing for my dedication to those loved ones. When they need me or something I can do to brighten their day or lighten their load, I am all in. But they’ll have to settle for a good friend, because I can’t be a good fan.

And this must also mean I’m a Bad Autistic. Aren’t all autistics supposed to perseverate, or focus to an uncommon extent on a very specific thing, to the exclusion of everything else? I certainly did so to a greater extent as a kid–I had books and books about the First Ladies and American History, and my very own Presidents of the United States trashcan. But there was never a world I fell into that I couldn’t fall right back out of when something else grabbed my interest. And I always preferred to make up my own stories and characters in my favorite settings, rather than retread the same classics over and over.

I’m not waiting for that evangelical moment, when I find something that “finally” turns me into a full-fledged fan. I don’t think it’s going to happen. If it hasn’t already, with the abundance of amazing media to which I’ve been exposed in my life, it seems unlikely that something so radically new will come along to change that. And most of the time, I’m not even looking for that experience. But I do steam up the window glass sometimes, peering in at all the people who seem to be getting so much more fulfillment from the things I merely enjoy. As I used to (and sometimes still) feel about the LGBT community, I’m a strong, vociferous ally and advocate to fandom, but I often feel I’m missing some extra dimension in life because of these limits to my senses, boundaries, or imagination.

So here I sit, on this awkward fence. I speak the language of fans, and I understand and appreciate their culture, but I can never fully participate. I’m far from a “fan widow”–I don’t reject or feel left behind by the enthusiasms of my friends and family. But I can’t understand prioritizing those things above more basic obligations and engagements. I can’t even really explain what I mean, and I’m worried this sounds condescending or judgmental. (If I have come off this way, please accept my apology and my vow that I intend neither of these things.)

I’m not sure what this coming-out story accomplishes, not the way I have with the others I’ve told. I still love the things I love, but I love them differently than so many of the other people in my life. Mostly, I hope this just explains why I never seem to get particularly flustered or anxious when everyone around me is freaking out about The Wait, or The Trailer, or The Leaked Detail, or The Brush With Fame. And I hope it doesn’t make anyone more hesitant to share their enthusiasm with me. Please know that it finds a safe, welcoming harbor with me, as do all the other pieces of you. Because what I’m really a fan of is people, in all their exuberant difference and intricate detail. That’s what I’m willing to invest in, and I don’t have to go to a con to wallow in the wonderful world that creates.

This is what democracy looks like

Normally, I’d be writing a Friday Night Lists posts today, but something so extraordinary happened yesterday that I feel compelled to write about that instead. It’s a series of events that has restored a tiny bit of my faith in responsive government, and will have an effect on literally tens of thousands of people who will never know I had a role in it.

A few months ago, I saw an email from TakeAction Minnesota calling for folks to tell their stories about the importance of MinnesotaCare, the low-cost state health insurance option that covers people with incomes between 75 to 250% of Federal Poverty Level, depending on family status. I wrote in with my own story about the failure of care for my fibromyalgia and subsequent suicidal depression that occurred when we first moved to Minnesota two years ago, and how well MinnesotaCare has kept me healthy since it kicked in that fall.

I got a call from one of the healthcare staffers at TakeAction this spring. In the time that had passed, we’d dealt with Connor’s own crisis, and MinnesotaCare was (and is) critical in the solutions that saved his life. They asked if I’d be willing to testify to these things as the government worked to figure out what to do with MinnesotaCare, once (hopefully) the Affordable Care Act kicks in in 2014. Some officials wanted to ensure that eligible communities would move into a Basic Health Plan that’s basically the same, while more conservative influences have been pushing hard to force participants to buy their own private plans on the Insurance Exchanges that will be set up under ACA. Of course, I said yes.

This Thursday, I attended a meeting of the Access government workgroup grappling with these issues. It’s a panel of officials from relevant government bureaus, the Minnesota Legislature, and agencies like Legal Aid and major labor and insurance groups. Here’s what I told them:

“My name is Jessica Banks. My husband, my two young sons, and I are currently enrolled in Minnesota Care. I have experienced life with and without this important program. I am here to tell you today that, without access to Minnesota Care, my health and my life spiraled out of control. I am also here to tell you that our Minnesota Care coverage saved my son’s life.

When we moved to Minnesota from Wisconsin two years ago, we needed to transition our coverage from Badger Care to Minnesota Care. We qualify for state coverage because we make $34,000 a year for a family of four, putting us below the 200% Federal Poverty Level. Neither of our jobs provides health care coverage, and we are unable to afford a private plan. Unfortunately, our transition required a four-month waiting period during which I became very ill.

I have lived with fibromyalgia for the past 13 years. With medication, I can keep it fairly stable. When we moved, I had enough medicine to get me through a few weeks. I had made an appointment with a doctor when I arrived. I planned on paying out of pocket for the visit. That doctor was unwilling to continue my established care and, without insurance, I couldn’t afford to make additional doctors’ visits. Buying the medication without insurance would have cost over $1000 a month. I tried to find low cost alternatives, but I wasn’t successful.

I tapered myself off my meds, trying to make them last as long as I could. It wasn’t enough; I ended up going off all the meds completely. My pain levels spiked. I was couch and bed bound. It was so bad that I couldn’t take care of my kids. As my pain levels rose, a deep depression set in. I ended up in the ER with severe depression and pain. In the hospital, the doctors regulated my drugs and found generic alternatives that I could afford. I received help for the depression, and I began to return to my normal life. Then, our Minnesota Care coverage kicked in and I was able to fully recover.

In February, my nine-year-old son Connor, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, went through a suicidal crisis. Autistics like him find rapid, unpredictable change overwhelming. His baseline of everyday highs and lows crashed and became erratic. Minor problems seemed insurmountable, and we had difficulty protecting him from his wild swings of emotion at home and at school. He hurt himself on several occasions, and he couldn’t see any way out of his sensory and emotional torture.

Our Minnesota Care plan completely covered his evaluation and a partial hospitalization program that quickly and effectively reversed his attempts to kill himself, and changed all of our lives for the better. Because of Minnesota Care, we were able to help him heal, and to recover as a family. He finished the school year back with his friends and teachers at Chelsea Heights. On this Tuesday, we celebrated his 10th birthday, a milestone I honestly doubted we would achieve at times this spring.

I am incredibly grateful for Minnesota Care. I shudder at the thought of what the outcome would have been if we didn’t have access to Connor’s treatment. I am here to ask you to ensure that Minnesota Care families continue to have access to affordable health coverage through an option very similar to Minnesota Care, called the Basic Health Plan. A comprehensive benefit package, including full mental health benefits and affordable prescriptions, is also important to my family’s continued wellbeing.

Without Minnesota Care, my health insurance premiums would increase by over 50 to 70 percent if we had to buy coverage on the Exchange, instead of having Minnesota Care. Without Minnesota Care, Minnesota families like mine, who are already vulnerable, would be exposed to unbearable stresses and burdens. My son and my family were saved by Minnesota Care–please don’t take it away.”

I’d practiced my comments several times, so I thought I had it cold, but when I described Connor’s difficulties, I got choked up. I recovered without messing up my mascara, but I could hear sniffles both in the audience and on the panel. When I told them about celebrating Connor’s birthday, I flipped up the picture frame I’d brought with me to the table and showed them this picture. The sniffles turned into tears.

I had to leave for work shortly after I testified, but the ladies from TakeAction who’d helped me figure out the specifics of my comments and supported me with their presence there that day were very complimentary. A few people thanked me for my courage, which surprised me. What I’d done hadn’t taken any particular courage on my part–I don’t have a filter, so I’ll tell anybody anything. (Exhibit A: This whole damn blog.)

That evening, I got an email from TakeAction, containing a forwarded message from the chairwoman of the committee for me and another woman who testified. She wrote this:

“And then when people spoke, they were eloquent and compelling.  They did a fabulous job.  Unfortunately, I was not able to thank any of them personally or tell them how great they did.  They left before the meeting finished.  As a result they may not have realized how important they were to today’s outcome.  In agreeing today that the benefit package for the138-200% population should be at least equal to the current MNCare benefit package (and agreeing that we should continue to explore what other benefits should be added [Model Mental Health Benefits were added today]), several task force members referenced things that were said by the people who spoke today.  Their statements were also critically important in the task force deciding to recommend that people should pay no premium up to 150% FPG and reduced premiums for people between 150 and 200%

If you have the opportunity, please convey my thanks to everyone who came today and my deep appreciation to those who shared their stories.  Please assure them that they influenced the outcome.”

Another panel member emailed me directly to thank me for my testimony, and said that recently it seemed that the panel had been moving backward, away from a solution that would help MinnesotaCare folks, but that our stories contributed directly to these big leaps forward.

Frankly, I’m shocked, and that’s a bit sad, because what happened on Thursday is a perfect demonstration of how democracy is supposed to work. That it’s surprising is a good indicator of how rarely it does. The other panel member wrote, “When the kind of real-life story you brought into the room is missing from the discussion, the discussion often ends up harming consumers and workers.” You’d think that these stories would overcrowd the boardrooms and meeting halls–heavens know everyone’s got them–and make decision-makers emotionally fatigued and jaded. And if these stories can be so powerful, you’d think there’d be a line out the door at every meeting, of people deploying their own experiences to influence government and corporations. But I was thanked for being courageous and powerful, when I felt anything but as I spoke of my life and my loved ones. Telling stories is what my family does, and this didn’t feel any different.

But let me tell you all–your personal stories have immense power. They sway voters, shape policy, spur movement, support progress. That’s the core strength the Minnesota campaign against the anti-marriage amendment has going for it–the entire strategy is based on telling our stories of love and commitment to convince people that marriage matters to everyone.

So tell them. Practice them on me, on your family and friends, on anyone who will listen. Then wait for the discussions where your values lie, where the hinges of your life join with your investments, your neighborhoods, your government, your world. Screw your courage to the sticking point, if that’s what it takes, and raise your hand. Say yes. Fill the silence with your stories.

Then watch the world change around you.

Excuse me, I’m having a moment here

You know those people who always say, “There’s a reason for everything that happens?”

Yeah, I usually want to kick them in the crotch, too.

But even as I say that, I have to admit that I’ve seen meaningful patterns in my life, time and time again, for which there’s no rational explanation. Doors closing, windows opening–call it what you will. I’ve just found myself in too many places I shouldn’t have been that turned out to lead me to exactly where I was meant to be.

That’s why, when people ask me if I could “take back” my sexual assault or my fibromyalgia or the hell we’ve been through with Connor, I answer, fast as a snap, “No!” Those things made and keep making me the person I am, and I love where and with whom I am far too much to risk changing even one crappy thing in the past.

For the most part, I perceive these patterns from afar, like an aerial photograph of where I’ve been. But I’m in the midst of an amazing moment right now, when I see them crystallizing right before me. I am precisely where I am supposed to be, where I’ve been headed for decades.

I’m volunteering for Minnesotans United for All Families, the coalition fighting the constitutional amendment that seeks to limit the freedom to marry in Minnesota for generations to come. It’s on the ballot in November, the 31st of these elections when a basic human right for a whole group of people is put up for popular vote.

We aim to be the first to defeat this kind of attack.

I’d already committed to be part of this effort, but when one of the organizers here in Saint Paul came to me to ask if I would step up as a team leader and put in about 6-8 hours a week on the campaign (until it becomes much, much more, when the leaves start falling from the trees). Frankly, I might’ve been smarter to say no, but I’d wanted a way to engage more with the campaign so, like the Overcommitment Princess I am, I said, “Bring it.”

I’ve attended trainings and phone banks, planning meetings and launch parties. I’ve met more new people on the campaign than I may have met in the whole time I’ve lived in Minnesota. They’re running a crazy-smart campaign here, unlike anything that’s been attempted anywhere else, focusing on personal conversations about love and commitment, rather than discrimination and legal protections, with over 1 million voters. And the longer I’m in this thing, the more I know that the skills I’ve acquired all come together for this work.

A lot of the work is very similar to teaching. Informing voters, training volunteers, and coordinating teams has shades of lecturing, discussing central concepts, guiding and supporting folks so they can reach their own conclusions on the subject. I appreciate my experience with non-traditional students and different ethnic constituencies–this coalition is so broad and deep, uniting across so many communities.

I’m finding my crisis counselor training to be very useful too. Having intense conversations about values with strangers, neighbors, and friends, as well as training others to have those conversations, requires active listening, something that doesn’t (but should) get taught in everyday life. It’s hard not to use my Rogerian reflective statements, but I’m allowed to get invested in the stories I’m telling and hearing in a way I couldn’t as a counselor. I’m walking with people through memories, and feelings, and judgments that sometimes unravel or take shape at the same time as the words cross their lips. It’s incredibly powerful.

And I’ve already expounded on my commitment to philanthropy and social justice activism here on the blog. Though I still feel guilty when I try to own my bisexuality because I’ve never suffered for that part of my identity, this isn’t only an LGBTQ issue. All you have to believe in to fight this amendment is love. I’m living my happily ever after, despite very long odds–I want everyone to have the same freedom and joy.

Even my training as a historian gives me perspective that adds to my sense of privilege at being a part of this. In my religious studies work, I’ve looked at the civil terms and religious blessings on personal commitments in a wide variety of cultures and eras, which is powerfully erosive of many arguments in favor of such an amendment. And knowing the history of milestones like the Loving v. Virginia case, which made interracial marriage legal for once and for all in America in 1967, has opened my eyes to the historical importance of halting the tide of these amendments at last.

So I’m having a moment here. Minnesota’s having a moment too, deciding what kind of state it wants to be. But my moment (as egocentric as it sounds to say it) is more empowering than I think anyone at Minnesotans United knows or cares. I doubt my qualifications, my value, my ability to be useful to anyone, all the time. Every time I recommend myself for something, my heart’s in my throat like I’m jumping off a cliff. I even feel weird thinking about getting business cards made up, because honestly, who would ever want or need to remember me enough to keep my stupid square of cardstock?

But on this campaign, I feel useful. I’m doing good work. I can contribute my skills and my passion, and have it matched and encouraged and appreciated. I feel needed–me, with my quirky, particular bag of tricks. I’m so grateful for the experience that I even offered to dye my hair back to a plausibly human color, if they thought that the coding that happens on first contact would be detrimental to my ability to help effectively. Their response? “No way. Rock the pink hair. We need the pink-haired to feel included too.”

That’s love, folks. That’s what we’re fighting for. And what I’m doing will help us win.

Jun 3, 2012 - Literature    3 Comments

A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That: Reverb Broads Summer #1

I took part in an offshoot of the Reverb blogging projects, called Reverb Broads, last December. I really enjoyed the almost-spiritual discipline of writing something every day, and the community of other women I hooked into has lead to some incredibly fulfilling new friendships and a whole bunch of excellent reading. So I’m doing the summer iteration throughout June. If you’re enjoying the prompts and the posts they inspire, consider joining in the fun! 

Summer Broads 2012, Prompt 1: With what fictional character (book, movie, TV, etc.) do you most identify? Why? (by Kristen of Kristendom)

This one has two parts, and neither of them include Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) like everyone else’s responses apparently do. 🙂

First, there are the characters I’d like to be like. They tend to be wildly intelligent, super useful, ultra competent women who stay calm in the most unimaginable situations. There’s Claire Fraser from Diana Gabaldon‘s Outlander novels. She starts out as a war nurse in World War II, then goes back in time to 1848 Scottish Rebellion (Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that). Once they think she’s not a whore who went out into the woods in her slip, she quickly ingratiates herself to the rebels with her useful medical skills. She picks up a hot redhead for her troubles (that much, at least I can live out), and generally rolls through major events of history with grace and aplomb.

Then there’s Mary Russell from Laurie R. King‘s series of the same name. Mary’s a precocious, bookish teenager when she meets Sherlock Holmes, and first becomes his apprentice in the art of detecting, and later, his wife. She’s easily as intelligent as he is, and though their life is anything but restful, their relationship could be described that way. She’s brilliant, a fast learner, and wicked cool in a crisis.

And, while I do have some reputation for functioning well in the face of disaster (hence the nickname Emergency Lass), I don’t have any illusions that I’m as cool as they are. Nor am I as consistently one personality as most characters. That’s not surprisingly–characters need to conform to predictable archetypes, and only evolve a modicum of complexity after a series is well under way. So, while this question left me at a sincere loss for days, the closest formula I can come up with is what follows.

A big part of me is Hermione Granger. I’m a bossy know-it-all witch, always eager to share what I’ve learned with other people. That’s why I’m happiest when I’m teaching–all that reading and study is zero fun if I’m not sharing it with someone else. I’d rather spend my vacation in the restricted section of the library, and I’m a bit befuddled by how little attention most people seem to be paying to, well, everything. I’m pretty sure there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved with more reading. I’m also fiercely loyal to those I love, and willing to go to the mat (or the troll, or the Shrieking Shack, or the Ministry of Magic) for them.

But Hermione doesn’t cover my weird, unpredictable, impulsive side. For that, I turn to Delirium. She’s one of the Endless, a group of mythic archetypes that function as quasi-divinities/forces of nature in the classic graphic novel series The Sandman. Delirium hasn’t been quite right in the head since her brother Destruction, the big bluff protector of the bunch, split town. She wanders between her own reality and everyone else’s, and is fond of bizarre pronouncements and non sequiturs. At heart, though, she’s a little confused, a lot optimistic, and genuinely loves her family, imperfect though they are.

And her hair changes color with her moods, a power I sincerely covet. If only so I don’t have to touch up my roots.

Priceless: the Nordstrom follow-up

This post is a follow-up to the one I wrote on Sunday, 29 April 2012, after a nightmarish customer service experience at the Mall of America Nordstrom store. If you haven’t read that account, what follows will make much more sense if you do so first.

I held off writing a follow-up until I felt like I’d reached as much of a resolution as I was going to. I reached that point two weeks later. And I really wanted to come back to you and say that my in-store experience was a fluke, that Nordstrom’s reputation for good customer service really was the norm.

I can’t do that.

In the minor Twitterstorm that blew up following my initial blog post, a member of Nordstrom’s social media customer service team contacted me and invited me to Direct Message with her about my experience. She had also seen the customer service complaint that a good friend submitted directly to the Nordstrom website, with a link to my post. I summed up the unnecessary pain, humiliation, and frustration to which I’d been subjected; she replied with very sincere apologies on behalf of the company she represents, for which I was grateful. She said that she hoped we could work together to find a resolution that would repair my impression of the company, to which I replied, among other things, that I would “be content with a good fitting with someone nice.” I asked if there were people at Nordstrom Rack who could also do that job. She said she would contact the MOA Rack location and inquire on my behalf. She also indicated that she would be forwarding my story up the chain of command, as an object lesson in customer service.

When she got back to me, a few days later, she said that, while the Rack doesn’t usually do bra fittings outside of special events for that particular purpose, there were trained sales associates who could do that for me. I expressed concern that, if they didn’t do fittings regularly, perhaps they wouldn’t do it as well as someone at the full-line store. Time and again, I was steered back to an option that took me to the Rack–“I’m sure you’d feel more comfortable there,” “I can imagine you’d rather not go back to the full-line store,” etc. It’s hard not to see those efforts as being related to my initial price point of $30-40, though I’d reiterated several times that, if I received good service and found a sturdy, lasting product that cost a little more, I’d be willing to spend beyond my range. Those statements were consistently ignored, and I feel the class warfare side of this whole fiasco more keenly than ever. I’m only welcome in the Rack; I shouldn’t even bother crossing the boundaries of the upscale store.

(When I finally received an email apology from the general manager of the MOA Nordstrom, on Thursday, it wasn’t in response to the promised escalation, but rather my friend’s online complaint. She, too, offered a “private fitting”–to which I could only say, “What, do you usually do them in the food court?”–but reiterated the statement that I “might prefer not to come back” to their store, and get the fitting at the Rack.)

Moreover, the offer of a fitting was consistently phrased as “you can call anytime and speak to this person, to set up a fitting.” The onus of getting what I was asking for was placed entirely on me. Now, I understand the practical issue of me being the one with the schedule that needs to be worked around–I get that. But there’s no good reason at all why I shouldn’t have had a phone call from someone–anyone–to apologize “in person” and ask me when I would be available for an appointment. This seems petty, when I write it out, but there isn’t a moment of my day that isn’t busy, and I’m not likely to take a moment to make a phone call for something selfish when other people need things done.

The longer I went without resolution, and after discussions with my therapist and friends, the more I felt that it wasn’t too much for me to ask to leave the store with what I’d come in for–an affordable, comfortable bra. I replied to the offer of a private fitting with the uncommonly assertive (at least, for me) suggestion that a fitting was basic customer service that they (ostensibly) offer to anyone who walks in off the street, free of charge, and that that wasn’t sufficient restitution for the damage done. I said I wanted an affordable, comfortable bra, and whether they accomplished that with a discount coupon or gift card was up to them.

Anyone who knows me knows that making this demand is A Big Deal for me. I’ll insist on cosmic justice, plus a moon to hang their coat on, for anyone else, but I just don’t ask for things for myself. I won’t even send food back to a restaurant kitchen unless it’s thoroughly inedible. This comes directly from lack of self-esteem–I’ve got no illusions about the flimsiness of my justification. It took me a full 12 hours to hit the Send button on that email. In some ways, I feel like that accomplishment was the real outcome of the harassment I suffered. (Deep gratitude to Cam, Jess, M, Panda, Josh, Elizabeth, and John for their editing and affirmations.)

That demand was, however, apparently in vain. Here’s the response I got from the Nordstrom rep:

At Nordstrom we feel that you can’t put a price on good customer service… Since you indicated in one of your messages to our social media team that you’d “be content with a fitting appointment arranged with someone nice” to bring resolution to this situation, we are happy to arrange this. Please let us know a day and time that would be convenient for you and if you’d like for your fitting to take place at our full-line store or at the Rack. We will work closely with you to ensure that you are fitted properly and to assist you in finding a quality product in a price point that you are comfortable with.

Following that reply, I received a request for my phone number so the manager of the MOA location could call and apologize in person. I hoped that she might have more leeway to accomplish what the social media rep couldn’t, but her tune remained the same. said offered me her apologies–though they struck me more as “we’re sorry we missed a chance to earn a customer,” rather than, “we’re sorry you were treated so inhumanely”–and an appointment with the stylist who fitted her for her bras. She also offered to have to have her meet me at the Rack. When I said that I didn’t think it was out of line to ask that, if the bra we found that fit me best turned out to be beyond my price range, that they step in to make it affordable, she responded with the “no price on good customer service line,” making it apparent that it’s company policy.  She said, “I mean, people could come in and be offended all the time! If we handed out gift cards left and right, we’d go out of business!”  To which I replied, “But I didn’t come in to be offended, and my experience really happened.”

I almost caved–I’ll be totally honest. I wanted to please and relieve her at least as much as she wanted to do so for me. But I drew up my last bit of gumption in the end and told her that, while I appreciated her time, her apology, and her offer, I wasn’t going to give a single dollar to a company that values their bottom line more than their customers. She sounded very put out, and the cheer drained from her voice. When someone ends a call with “Well, I’m sorry that’s how you feel,” you know you managed to stick to your guns.

So it comes down to this: Nordstrom’s quality of customer service is priceless to them. On the positive side, it means that they (are supposed to) care more about customer satisfaction than the sale. That’s good, and should be the service goal of every for-profit organization. On the flip side, it means that bad customer experiences aren’t worth anything tangible to them. They don’t assign a price to satisfaction, so when they fail, they still win, because mistakes cost them nothing, plus they reap the benefits of an object lesson. Nordstrom is not willing to negotiate with terrorists. And they see everyone who walks through their door as both potential sale, and potential bomber. It’s more than a little weird to think that they see customers as people “trying to get something out of them.” They do–you’re a freaking STORE.

Here’s my final reply:

Nordstrom, I will never darken your door or put a dime in your cash registers. Every time I hear someone suggest Nordstrom as a destination, I will tell them how I was treated.

I am not rich or powerful. But I have friends. My friends are having weddings and babies. My friends are your target demographic. My friends are fiercely loyal, and believe in the worth and dignity of every person, which apparently doesn’t fit with your company’s values. And they talk to people, too.

For 15 minutes of your time and a half-price bra, you could’ve had a whole lot of goodwill. Instead, you get 15 minutes of a whole bunch of people’s time, and a PR disaster. Be sure you tally that on your bottom line.

 

Apr 29, 2012 - Physical Ed    13 Comments

For shame

I’m of two minds about shopping. I love seeing pretty, cool, interesting new things. Some of them, I even enjoy trying on or, if the stars are right, buying them. I also love seeing what Nightmares of Fashion Past are currently visiting themselves upon kids too young to have suffered them the first time.

On the other hand, we’re a lower-middle class, half-Aspergian family. We have young sons with voices that can shatter glass and the combined attention span of a brain-damaged goldfish. Big-box stores and malls not only stress the hell out of me, they often hurt me physically–cement floors are the bane of my existence.

And then there’s the fact that I’m fat. Clothes shopping is an exercise in frustration and self-loathing. Women’s sizes are frequently not available in stores, and when they are, those stores seem to think that plus-sized women are both color- and pattern-blind, and happy to spend another $10-15 for the same design in one size larger than the range they’ve decided is “normal.” My particular body shape further complicates things by being both tall and hourglass-shaped. Consequently, I’m forced to buy shirts a size bigger than I actually need them if I want them to button, and I’ve never once owned a pair of jeans that fit well at waist, hip, and length.

My boys at the Mall of America LEGO store last summer. The mech and helicopter behind them? Made of LEGO.

In any case, the underwire on my next-to-last bra broke suddenly this week, leaving me with one, count ’em, one bra to wear. This is not an Acceptable Situation. Since we’d already promised Connor he could pick out a new LEGO set as a reward for a week of good, steady progress in his program, and they didn’t have the Marvel Super Heroes LEGO at the local stores, we committed to making the pilgrimage to the Mall of America’s LEGO store. It’s pretty epic, and with a budget firmly established in advance, it’s a bunch of fun for all of us. I figured I’d make my own quick trip to Nordstrom, which is widely regarded as the best place to get fitted properly for a bra, and actually find one in irregular sizes like mine.

While the thought of a new bra or two appeals greatly, for practicality and pleasure, the thought of submitting to the handling and scrutiny of my gigantic bosom and scarred, lumpy midsection by a stranger with a measuring device appeals not at all. But I’d worked my heart and mind up to a place where I could tolerate the humiliation and inevitable revulsion I would face in that dressing room. I’d taken some Xanax to dull the psychic trauma of being in a place with so much ambient noise and stress. And I’d settled the boys comfortably, post-LEGO acquisition, so I wouldn’t have to take them into the highbrow hush of Nordstrom.

I went up to the the Lingerie section and spent a few minutes admiring both the lovely underthings and the signs that said “Sizes up to 44H.” A saleslady approached me and asked if she could help. I asked the general price range of their bras. She responded, “They go up to $200.” I nodded, more nonchalant than I felt, and asked again, “But the average price? Around $30 or 40?”

She laughed at me, a sniffy sound of disbelief. “Ah ha ha, um, no. They average around $60.” I thanked her for the information, and left with as much speed and dignity as I could muster.

Let me say that again: The Nordstrom saleswoman laughed at me.

I’d gone in there, ready to face shaming for my size and shape. I wasn’t ready to be shamed for my income before I’d even taken off a stitch of clothing. It was more than I could bear, and there were tears welling in the rim of my glasses before I even got back to the table where my boys were sitting. I didn’t trust myself to say out loud what had happened, so I typed it quickly on my phone so my Darling Husband would know: “Ever walk into a place and immediately feel like you’re not welcome, that you’re not good enough to be there and everyone knows it? She laughed at me when I asked if there were any bras in the $30 range.”

My sons saw the tears rolling silently down my face, and not knowing why, they still rose to press tiny, tight hugs around me. My Darling Husband, whom anyone who knows him is not quick to anger, got that tight set to his jaw, and walked silently into the store. When he came back, he told me he’d found the saleswoman and asked for her manager.  The woman’s response to the confrontation was that she certainly hadn’t intended it that way; he informed her that, when the effect was so horrendous, her intentions weren’t worth a damn. We both worked in retail for a long time, coming up, so he knew precisely the right words to invoke. He told them both that, in humiliating his wife, they had both failed utterly at customer service and managed to permanently lose at least two customers.

But I was wrecked, and the only passive-aggressive revenge I could manage at the time was to tweet my grief and horror. And as I told the friends on Twitter and Facebook who immediately rallied to me and suggested both solutions and unspeakable tortures upon the saleswoman, if I could find a bra as supportive as all those wonderful people, I’d be set for life. It wasn’t until today that I realized I have a teeny tiny platform of my own.

So let me say this. The difference between the haves and the have-nots has rarely been greater in this country. This divide isn’t just social or economic–it’s also geographic. There are places where people who don’t have much money are not only not welcomed, but where they will be humiliated for even daring to darken the doorstep. Don’t even breathe on the merchandise–your poorness might be catching, and we wouldn’t want that. I’ve already learned that, the fewer pieces of merchandise in a store, the less likely it is someone like me could afford anything in there. And if there are no price tags, don’t even bother asking–it’s out of your range.

The people who staff these places make snap judgments on the fitness of a patron in a split second, on purely superficial impressions, the very least reliable kind. That scene from Pretty Woman? It doesn’t only happen on Rodeo Drive. Apparently it happens in a Minnesota department store, too.

Want to know the saddest thing? Nordstrom has a discount sister store, Nordstrom Rack. I’ve bought clothes with retail prices in the hundreds of dollars for $20 or less at Nordstrom Rack. There is even, in fact, a Nordstrom Rack in the Mall of America (something I didn’t know yesterday). If that saleswoman was serious about the customer service reputation and/or the bottom line of Nordstrom, Inc., she could have easily directed me to that location for bras in my price range, and I would’ve left a happy customer likely to spend my hard-earned money on their merchandise. I might even have tweeted how pleased I was by the service I’d received.

But she didn’t. So I left her workplace feeling like dirt for daring to step outside Walmart with my grubby, contagious, working-class, overweight self.

So here’s what I have to say. Even if you’ve got the money to spend at Nordstrom–maybe even especially if you do–don’t. Unless you like that atmosphere that judges people, that says there’s a different America for those who don’t look right or make their money the right way. Give your money to the places that wait to see that your money’s as green as anyone else’s, or better yet, the ones that see a person first, instead of a class.

Mar 24, 2012 - Domestic Engineering    No Comments

The 3 Ss

I’ve got two anecdotes, neither worthy of an entire post, and both in danger of being forgotten if I don’t record them while they’re still in my memory. One’s sweet, one’s surreal; both are short–perfect for the weekend!

I went with Connor to a friend’s birthday party last weekend. We’re officially at the stage–and in a neighborhood/income bracket–when parents hold their kids’ parties away from home. The Cold War of Escalating Birthday Parties is in effect. This one was at a suburban community center that houses a mini waterpark. There’s only one waterslide, but it’s got lights on the inside of the tube, and you get to choose the music that blasts inside while you swirl your way down (needless to say, The Star Wars theme was most popular with this group).

Places like this, and bowling alleys, and skating rinks are high-stimulus environments, and sometimes the combination of excitement from the celebration and the sensory overload can overwhelm Connor and leave him vulnerable to sudden bursts of unexpected emotion and/or behavior. I’ve made it a practice to go along and hang in the background, lend a hand to the parents if needed, and just be there in case he needs help finding his balance again. It helps that I read to his class and chaperone their field trips, so I’m known as one of the “fun moms” and my presence is generally considered an asset by the other kids.

On the way into the building, I told Connor that I would be trying my hardest to stay out of his way and let him handle things on his own, but that if he felt like he was moving out of “the green zone” (green=good), I would be there as a safe place he could come to decompress. He looked at me funny, and said, “You’re a safe place? You mean, you’re a building?” I started to make a self-deprecating joke about being as big as a building, but he cut me off as he continued. “You know, you kind of are a building,” he said. “You’re a library! I mean, you read tons of books, and you read to me and Dad and Griffin, and you know tons of stuff about everything, so yeah…you’re a library.”

I was completely gobsmacked. I looked down at him and said, a little choked up, “You know, that may be the single best compliment I have ever received from everyone ever, kid.” Then I decided to lighten the mood. “You know how else I’m like a library? I’m always telling you to BE QUIET!” He laughed, then ran ahead to join his friends.

Footnote: The Darling Husband’s response to this story, when we got home later, was this: “Oh, I would’ve said you’re like a library because you inexplicably close up some nights at 7.” Har har, Funny Guy.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, here’s what woke me up this morning. Griffin always shares his dreams with me in the morning cuddle time, and since I’d been allowed (and actually managed to sleep in), he snuggled his way under my arm when the DH gave the go-ahead. I asked what he’d dreamt, and this was our exchange.

Griffin: I dreamed about Clifford. Polka dots.

Me: What about polka dots? He had polka dots?

Griffin: Yes!

Me: Huh, polka dots. What did he do with his polka dots?

Griffin: He went to the hopsital*!

Me: What did they do at the hospital about the polka dots?

Griffin (said like I’m the biggest idiot in the world)Moooooom. YOU know.

Me (utterly confused): No. No, I don’t.

THE END

*spelling reflects his pronunciation. Yes, we’re still at the “hopsital” and “pasketti” stage.

Mar 20, 2012 - Physical Ed    7 Comments

One Size Fits Most

It is, quite abruptly, spring here in Minnesota. It’s been that way for about a week now, and it’s utterly unsettling. Between the unseasonably warm weather, and the early Daylight Savings Time change, I don’t think we’ve eaten supper before 7pm in the last seven days. My boys have already collected a whole spring’s worth of scrapes and bruises–it looks like we’ve been beating them from knee to ankle.

It’s hard to complain about such beautiful weather, but I’m one of many people (especially women) for whom hot weather is an uncomfortable season to be dreaded.

See, I’m fat.

Not morbidly obese, but not just a little pudgy either. I’m tall (5’9″), but that only helps so much. I’ve got a classic hourglass figure, but they don’t really make jeans or shirts for that shape anymore. I can wear a 16, but I’m more comfortable in an 18. Most of my T-shirts are XL. My bra size is officially Not Small.

The best thing that can be said about this condition is that my kids like to snuggle with me because I’m cushy. Also, I’m perfectly healthy for my weight–blood pressure and sugars are normal. Certainly the extra weight doesn’t help my fibromyalgia, but I’ve been thinner and the pain wasn’t measurably better.

But when it gets warm, I sweat. A lot. I can’t wear a skirt comfortably without Spanx because my inner thighs get raw from chafing; along the underwire line of my bra, too. I like to swim, but between my year-long pallor and the rolls and ridges, I don’t just sit around in my swimsuit–I’m either in the water, or I’m covered up.

And then there’s the psychological side. My self-esteem has never been particularly strong. My mom used to bemoan the fact that, despite the lavish praise and compliments she used to shower on her kids, my sister and I both ended up with self-esteem as bad as hers. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I realized that it didn’t matter what she said about us–it was the fact that she never had a nice word for herself that got handed down to her children. Sexual assault didn’t help either. He was the first guy I’d ever let see my naked body. He looked, crossed the room, and turned out the light. That left a deep mark.

Sometimes, I think it’s not so bad, that I carry the extra weight well enough, that I’m pretty enough in other ways to let that slide. But what I see in the mirror doesn’t match what I see if I’m unlucky enough to get caught in a picture. Sometimes, I don’t even recognize myself–I squint at the fat person on film, until my breath catches and I realize that’s me. That my mirror is a funhouse mirror after all, but the kind that fools you into thinking things are better than they actually are.

And the culture finds all sorts of ways to remind plus-size women that they’re less than. Affordable plus-size clothes are made of cheap fabrics and rejected patterns that would never be found in the juniors or misses racks. It gets even worse if you need maternity clothes. Sure, companies like j.jill make nice, classic clothes from quality fabrics in “women’s” sizes, but they don’t carry them in stores where those women can actually try them on–we’re left with catalog roulette. And pretty lingerie? Only Frederick’s of Hollywood carries plus-size “sexy” underwear in their stores, and the fabrics are all tasteless and harsh against the skin.

Don’t even get me started on all the other ways fat people are shamed everywhere they go. The seats in airplanes and movie theaters. Booths at restaurants. Hospital gowns. Baby Bjorns and Boppys. The mean, greedy, gluttonous fat women in movies, TV, even comic books. The stares if you dare to wear something revealing for a date, or scamper around with your kids in your swimsuit, or dare to order dessert. I’ve left the house feeling pretty and sexy and appreciated by my Darling Husband, and come home so ashamed and unattractive that I change into dumpy pajamas in the bathroom, away from even his gaze.

I enjoy the feel of sunlight and warm air on my skin. I like to run and play with my kids, on the days the fibro lets me. I like silk and linen and soft, thin cottons. I like elegant dresses and swirly skirts and pretty tops.

Courage shouldn’t be a necessary accessory. It’s almost impossible to find in my size.

Feb 25, 2012 - Psychology    5 Comments

Minnesota Nice

Things you should know about me

  • I love volunteering for good causes
  • I love making people feel good about themselves
  • I love trying new things
  • I love making people laugh
  • I also use humor to defuse tense situations
  • I need to feel useful
  • I try to be honest, tactful, and polite, even when they seem mutually exclusive
  • I frequently wear myself out doing things for others before I get around to taking care of myself
  • I have an anti-authoritarian, rebellious, “Who the hell are you to tell me I can’t?” streak a mile wide
  • I’m wild about democratic politics, but not interested in small group interpersonal politics, except in an abstract, anthropological way
  • I love when my enthusiasm for something makes others enthusiastic too
  • I somehow manage to have abysmal self-esteem and a sense of unflappable calm and competence in crises
  • I probably like making lists a little too much
  • I’m pretty riled up at the moment, so this is about as passive-aggressive as I get
  • I’m pretty sure the people I’m upset with don’t read this blog

Things I don’t really enjoy

  • Power politics in places you don’t expect them
  • People who hoard information to guarantee their continued importance
  • People who let someone else take fire as a leader, but continue to pull strings behind the scenes
  • Finding out important things about an institution that radically change your understanding and expectations of what’s possible
  • The belief that intellectuals can’t possibly know anything practical about the “real world”
  • The stance that it’s not worth even trying new things because there’s the chance that they’ll fail
  • Grown-ups who still rely on status cliques for a sense of importance
  • People who won’t blow you off to your face, but who basically stopped listening before you started talking
  • Being accused of selfish motives for taking on time-consuming, thankless volunteer work
  • Finding oneself nominated by the method of everyone else taking a step backward while you stood still
  • Being my own (and only) cheerleader
  • Feeling like a project that’s meant to be helpful and positive is now nothing but a drag on time, energy, and emotional reserves
  • Working on not being such a control freak, and then watching everything go directly to hell the minute I leave it alone
  • Being hamstrung on projects that are important to me because I don’t play politics
  • The why-am-I-even-trying-anymore kind of tired

Things I actually do enjoy

  • Kids wanting to hug me, high-five me, say hi to me, tell me a joke, or ask when I’m coming back to their class, every time I walk down a school hallway
  • When good, solid, simple plans work like they’re supposed to, defying others’ expectations of failure
  • Having another project that actually is working, and doing good, and is appreciated
  • People who feel like I’m approachable and non-judgmental, even when the group I represent leaves them feeling excluded from a secret society
  • Helping friends
  • Helping kids
  • Helping strangers
  • Helping anyone, anywhere, anytime I’m asked
  • My hair color, even if I’m “too old” to be doing weird stuff like this
  • A good old-fashioned bitch session
  • People who support me when I go out on a limb with good intentions
  • Participating in conversations that have no mysterious subtexts or power dynamics I don’t know about
  • Making my own social group where the misfits feel welcome and valued
  • A level playing field
  • Offering a graceful way out of the corner someone has painted themselves into (eventually)
  • The job-well-done kind of tired
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