Tagged with " values"
Mar 17, 2012 - Ancient History    3 Comments

A Drop of the Irish

I’m five-eighths Irish, and it shows in all kinds of ways. I don’t tan–I just burn badly, then peel back to freshly-drowned white. My complexion also blushes impressively at the first whiff of emotion or alcohol. I’ve got a decisive jaw and a stubborn chin, and the attitude to back them up. I look damn fine in any and every shade of green. I’m hard-pressed to keep my toes still if there’s a spirited jig or reel playing. I’ve got a mighty temper, which rises and falls with sometimes alarming speed and whimsy. And I’ll take a chilly, misty, drizzly day–a “soft day,” to the Irish–over a cloudless 80-degree one hands down.

And oh yes: a significant number of my relatives are alcoholics.

My Grandpa Boyle, mobbed by the grandkids as usual. I'm top right; my sister lower right; 2 of many cousins on the left. Salt of the earth, my grandpa was.

Now don’t go getting on me for pandering to an ethnic stereotype. Not all Irish are drunks, probably not even a majority. But Irish social interactions have been lubricated by smoky whiskeys and beers as thick and dark as the new moon since time immemorial. (Don’t question me when use idioms like “time immemorial;” I’ve literally read the very earliest Irish historical documents.) And for so many people with Irish blood in their veins, it’s an understatement to say their relationship with alcohol is fraught with generations of experience and emotion.

And so it was with my paternal family. I’m descended from the Boyle clan, with a side order of Higgins, and I grew up in and near Milwaukee, home of the most epically huge and enthusiastic Irish Fest in North America. Holidays, christenings, birthdays, marriages, funerals, and occasional random weekends were spent in the wood-panelled basement of my grandparents’ home in a blue-collar suburb. (If you don’t know about the Irish and wood panelling, you need to pay more attention to Denis Leary.) On every available surface, there were either food or bottles of booze; with both, quantity over quality was the byword. Both were consumed at a steady pace, with the grit and determination of long-distance runners.

What I remember most about those parties–besides my cousins and slipping around on the tiled floor in my fancy shoes–was the volatility. The growing volume level, the slightly unbalanced quality to the adults’ laughter, and the overbroad, unmeasured gestures. The sudden snap of a frayed temper, the crack of an angry outburst. The atmosphere of precariously balanced danger. The longer the nights drew on, the more I instinctively shrank into myself, made myself smaller, so I wouldn’t upset the equilibrium.

My mom and father, high school sweethearts, in better days.

If it had only been at these parties, I’d probably be writing about this with more humor. But it was at home too, with no parties, no gaiety–just a staggering, slurring father, present in so many snapshots of my childhood. He worked hard, but there were weeknights he came home so hammered, he was still drunk when he walked out the front door the following morning. He’s a big man, 6 foot 4, and thickly built. Sometimes, he came home in the mood to play, but he couldn’t control his strength when he was drunk, and his horseplay often left at least one of us kids crying. Most nights though, if he didn’t just stumble into bed, he was angry and belligerent. I’m the oldest of us three siblings, so I felt it was my responsibility to protect us. We spent nervous hours crouched in the bathtub; the bathroom was the only door in the house with a lock.

My brother, sister, and I, right around the age when we all grew up very fast.

I was a pretty precocious kid, so when my mom finally demanded that he leave when I was about 8 years old, I was all for it. The next two years were hard, really hard, as my mom worked to support us on just her secretary’s salary–I shudder to think of what it would’ve been like if her parents hadn’t lived a mile away and been so generous with their time and resources. She knew the man who would become our stepdad from church–he was the Minister of Music, and she sang in the choir. She knew he’d been raised a teetotaler. Sure, he was 20 years older than her, but he’s a good man, and she knew he’d take better care of us all.

The rest of the Boyles knew my mom had given my father chance after chance after chance, but he refused to admit he had a problem, and they blamed the breakup on him. We’ve maintained very good relations with them all along, even after my father decided it was easier to think of us as dead for a while there. They supplied us with pictures of our new half-brothers from his second marriage, and they sent representatives to important events, like graduations and my wedding. I saw my father at a family reunion when I was 17. We hadn’t spoken for 8 years at that point; we wouldn’t speak again for another 17 after that.

My personal reaction to the alcoholism I saw rampant in that branch of the family tree was unusual, I guess. I decided as a child that I would never even taste alcohol until I was old enough to be sure that my personality was fully formed, and that it didn’t have addictive tendencies. Lots of my friends didn’t understand my adamant refusal to drink in a small town where drinking, having sex, and renting movies were the primary forms of entertainment, often performed in combination. But I’ve been fortunate to have a happy assortment of offbeat friends who took that quirk in stride.

I went to France my senior year of college–I would turn 21 while I was over there–and I went with the attitude that, if the occasion rose and I felt comfortable, I’d try a drink that year. But I wasn’t ready when I first got there, and the French college students just shrugged off my refusal of beer-based hospitality, and pointed me to the Coca-Cola. The real problem was with the French adults. “BWAH?!?!?” they would exclaim. “But you are in France! Everyone drinks in France! You can’t not have wine!”

Oops. Magic word: can’t. See, I’ve got this anti-authoritarian button that pops out when someone tells me I can’t, and it sounds like this: “Oh, I can’t, can I? Well, that cinches it. Just watch me.” And I didn’t drink the entire year–not on my birthday, not at any of the outrageously good meals, not in any of the charming cafés or brasseries, even though my hot chocolates and Cokes cost me 12 francs, and a beer would’ve cost me 7. That’s some fine Irish stubbornness for you there.

I had my first drink of alcohol on my wedding night, a champagne toast with my friends. The friends who’d been with me all through college and the year in France couldn’t stop exclaiming how mind-bendingly odd it was to see me drink. Some knew why I’d waited; they were happiest to see me let go of that shackle. Funnily enough, because I’d waited until I was a fully grown adult to start drinking, I’ve never been drunk. Between my Irish/German constitution, my plus-size physique, and my unwillingness to drink any alcoholic crap that comes along, getting me drunk is a damned expensive proposition, and I’d so much rather spend that money on books.

I reconnected with my father when we moved back to Wisconsin for a few years. I’m the mother of his only two biological grandchildren, and I felt it would be stingy and petty of me not to let him get to know them, and them him. He hasn’t aged particularly well, but when he grows out his beard and hair, he looks like a rather jolly Irish Santa. They send us gift cards at Christmas; I send them cards and drawings from the boys. I don’t like to think how I would’ve turned out if my mom hadn’t had the steel in her spine to leave him, and when it’s time to talk to my boys about drinking and drugs, I’ll tell them what my first 8 years were like, and why I’ve made the choices I have.

Family and history–they’re the most Irish things I have to share with them.

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

The Censorship Quandary

The main job of parenting is to introduce your kids to the world outside your home in a way that best helps them make sense of it and learn to survive in it. You take them places, and show them things, then stand aside and anxiously watch them discover the joys and pitfalls for themselves. You clap and cheer, and dry tears and kiss scrapes. And it’s worth noting that this job isn’t only done by parents–any adult who deals with children experiences these things, and bears the honor and responsibility for those children’s formation.

The point of divergence among parents is when to expand the fence we build around our kids, to include new information and experiences. Obviously, this is a hot-button issue, laced with words like “censorship” and “age-appropriate” and “psychological trauma” that fuel an entire industry of researchers and trade paperback sales. Morals and memories of our own formative years have a powerful impact on our choices, as do our unique tastes. Sometimes, this veers in the absolute opposite direction from how we were raised. We resolve to raise our children with or without those influences: religion, politics, bad food, naughty words, even our extended family.

And sometimes, we lean into the curve of our own years, and urge our children into the shape of the things we’ve grown to love. The phrase “Where has this been all my life?!” is a strong predictor of parental behavior; the favorite shouted phrase of teenagers throughout time and space, “When I’m a parent, I’m never going to make my kid go there/eat that/do this!!” rarely factors in parenting decisions later in life. My husband and I are geeks who are making our living from an industry based on social experiences of play–it was a foregone conclusion that we would mold our little creations to share some of our offbeat enthusiasms. I showed Connor Star Wars when he was two, the same age at which I’d seen it (when it was first released in 1977), and Griffin was about the same age when I introduced him to Godzilla and all the other Japanese atomic monsters. And sure enough, they’re evolving nicely on the quick-witted, culturally referent, and wide-ranging track we set them.

But, inevitably, there are hitches in the unrolling of the tapestry of the world we lay at our children’s feet. Some, we never see coming. When Connor was born in the long, hot summer of 2002, we started watching “The Sopranos” on DVD to while away the humid evenings. He would actually stop nursing and look at the TV in recognition when the theme song came on. In large quantities, this show can have a deleterious effect on one’s language; I suddenly found myself saying, in the voice of Paulie Walnuts, “This f—ing guy!” whenever Connor would poop in a brand-new diaper. At the same time as we were awash in a stew of New Jerseyan profanity, I discovered that I no longer felt comfortable leaving live news on TV around my newborn son, a feeling that intensified as he grew to toddlerhood. I must admit, I am a news junkie; have been since high school. I mean, slap a vein and stick in a global 24-hour mainline–I want it all. So this discomfort came as a distinct shock to me as a new mother, a radical and instantaneous re-prioritization that told me I was no longer the same person I had always been, the first of many.

Other problems, we see coming and face with deep ambivalence. For instance: I swear. A lot. Not as badly as I did when I lived in France, but I’m somewhere between dockhand and a Naval officer on his ninth month at sea. I’ve tried to rein it in, but I just can’t force it entirely from my vocabulary, which will doubtless earn me the scorn of parents with more willpower. I’ve always believed in the concept that there are no bad words, only the wrong situations for them; calling them bad gives them more power, as most ably demonstrated by the Harry Potter novels. So I’m raising my kids to know that swear words are not appropriate for children, and are a reflection of strong emotions, and so far they get it. Connor, in particular, is still pained by my profanity, and regularly implores me to “be appropriate” around him, but I’m convinced he does this for the sheer joy of turning the tables on me. I’m also grappling with my awareness of the deeply bizarre American relationship with sex and violence. I’m determined not to be casual about violent themes and images, and to be less neurotic about anything to do with sex and gender, but the whole thing is fraught with conflict and difficulty. For now, I take it as a victory that my sons are some of the only young boys I know who don’t freak out at kissing or when I streak from bathroom to bedroom on the days I forget my robe.

We had a big turning point within the last week or so, with both boys. Griffin got himself suspended for a day by mooning his female classmates. When asked what on earth could’ve possessed him to do such a boneheaded thing, a thought occurred to me. Connor’s a huge fan of The Simpsons, and this was straight out of Bart’s playbook. I asked him, “Did you do it because you saw it on TV?” He nodded tearily, and mourned, “I did it so they would laugh.” So I’m having to re-evaluate the influences of tween tastes on the kindergarten set. Meanwhile, Cam has started playing Skyrim, and Connor is riveted by, of all things, the crafting. (I’m told WoW and FarmVille players will totally get the appeal.) He’s pleaded with us for permission to play on his own, so he can make leather and explore, but Cam firmly asserted that there was just too much violence and sexual content for a kid his age. I was more ambivalent, and argued that he wouldn’t necessarily even do some of the things we would be uncomfortable with, but I’m bowing to Cam’s vastly greater knowledge of video games.

It’s a comfort, though it seems wrong to put it like that, to say that some of the things that scared me the most as a child could never have been predicted, so sheltering my kids from everything isn’t going to inoculate them from every nightmare. The movie Gremlins scared the living crap out of me, and that was marketed directly at children, with tie-in toys and everything. And I was much more scared of nuclear war, as a Reaganbaby, than I was of anything I ever read–The Day After shook me so hard that it was incredibly hard to watch again as a grad student.

Similarly, one of Connor’s triggers couldn’t have been foreseen, or even insulated against. It took us a few years, until he could sufficiently articulate it, but extreme closeups of faces, especially not-completely-human faces, really freak him out. He went to see Spiderman 3–which is a horror in other ways, but I won’t get into that–at the movie theater, and none of the action or “adventure peril” bothered him at all. Instead, it was this one shot of Venom’s open mouth as he lunges at the camera that gave him fits. Likewise, there’s a scene in Fantastic 4 when Ben Grimm reveals his rocky deformation by turning his face out of shadow and lifting the brim of his hat. He leaves the room when that part of the movie is coming up, and that’s fine with me.

I console myself with the fact that we do so much with our children, and that guiding our kids through new experiences makes them less likely to be seeds of neurosis later in life. Sure, I’ve read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to them at Halloween–I even showed them the spooky-fantastic pictures by Stephen Gammell, which are apparently too scary to include in the latest republication. But I didn’t just give them the book and tell them to read it to themselves before bed. I was right there beside them, shivering at the gory parts and validating their fears by sharing my own. I think this prepares them for life much better than pure censorship can, and gives me the opportunity to shape their responses to their own feelings and impressions, by building a sense of empathy and honesty that I hope will serve us later when their lives get immeasurably more complex.

And if it doesn’t work, hey, I’m doing my part to support the psychoanalysts of the future.

Jan 13, 2012 - Psychology    4 Comments

So Very Proud

Initially, I wrote this post as a note on Facebook last June, but I’m moved to repost it here. It’s been a hard week for a friend and her autistic daughter, as they struggle with a school that won’t give her what’s needed or even what’s right. It’s so hard to be a parent to these children and feel like we have anything close to what they demand, day in and day out. Every once in a while, though, you get a dividend, and somehow, other parents’ dividends show up in our paychecks too. So here’s mine, for you all, today.

Connor (in the tie-dyed shirt) leading our church group in the Twin Cities Pride parade, June 2011

Connor, Griffin, and I walked in the Twin Cities Pride Parade on Sunday, under the banner of our wonderful, inclusive church family (White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church). I hadn’t realized that the Pride Festival was the same weekend as Origins Game Fair, so doing it as a single mom of two rambunctious boys had not been in my original plan, and to say I was apprehensive would be a serious understatement.

Already, the trials of single parenting had affected my commitment to volunteer for OutFront MN, when my wonderful friend and neighbor who’d planned to take the boys Friday night called a few hours before my scheduled shift to say her daughter had been sent home from day care with nits. The OutFront folks were very understanding, and I spent some compassion capital on making dinner for all of us to share on a picnic bench outside.

But I knew the parade and festival would be unlike anything any of us had ever done, and I prepared as best I could: lots of snacks, sunscreen, water bottles, first aid kit–you know how it is with boys.  We parked near the beginning of the parade (in retrospect, a big mistake, so noted for next year), and met our co-marchers. Our ranks were swelled by members of another UU church (with drums!), and we took our place behind a paramedic crew on their ambulance.

We left about 100 ft. between ourselves and the ambulance, in hopes of avoiding the exhaust fumes, but I told Connor and another 9-year-old, Diana, that they could use the space so long as they danced and rode Diana’s adorably-decorated scooter to put on a show.

This was the order Connor has been waiting for his entire life.

For the next two miles or so, Connor danced with streamers and beads. He breakdanced (well, sort of). He did fake kung-fu. He swooped like an airplane from one side of the street to the other and back again. He gave high fives and tousled little kids’ hair among the spectators. He was the one thing he has ever wanted to be–the absolute center of attention. And the crowd LOVED HIM.

Asperger’s kids have to work so hard, all the time, to make themselves and their feelings smaller, to contain themselves to conform to societal norms. I’m not proud to say that, most of the time we’re in public, I live in fear of mortification at the next boundary he violates. For him and for me, it’s a constant strain to color inside the lines, and opportunities to say, “Go, be entirely yourself, all the way, as big as you want,” are vanishingly rare. But this parade was just that opportunity, and it was a joy to unhook the leash and set him free.

Any other kid would’ve been too embarrassed to try new moves on such a stage, or to dive into a crowd of raucous strangers demanding high fives–awareness of those social boundaries would tell us to rein it in, to tone it down, to contain the joy to just smiling big and waving. Griffin was shy for most of the parade (or intent on scouring the ground for candy). But Connor was absolutely free.

I don’t know if either of my kids is gay; I don’t care in the slightest. But Pride celebrates being your fullest, truest self, without fear or judgment, and the parade gave Connor the chance to do just that, and by doing so, he gave so many other people such immense joy. I was watching the crowd’s reaction to him–they weren’t laughing at him, they were just delighted by him, exactly as he was. And my heart felt so huge in my chest, so full it choked me with tears at times. He was free of constraint, and I was free of fear. We were both so very, very proud.

Dec 15, 2011 - Political Science    1 Comment

Superior Volunteerior: Reverb Broads 2011 #14

Snuggled up with my boys on the capitol steps for the Read-In For Civility, in support of Neil Gaiman and libraries, May 2011

Reverb Broads 2011, December 14: Is volunteering something you do regularly? If yes, where do you volunteer? If not, why not? (courtesy of Kassie at http://bravelyobey.blogspot.com)

I am a total philanthropy geek — so much so that, last fall when I helped admin an event called Speak Out With Your Geek Out, I wrote about loving philanthropy like some people love video games and stuff. I love helping, and I love geeking out about new ideas and systems for getting that help to the people and places that need it most.

And volunteering is something I was brought up to do. As I’ve mentioned before, my grandma taught Red Cross first aid and swimming classes, and led Girl Scout troops for ages. My mom ran a dozen things at our church, not least of which the Sunday School program for a while, and did a stint as PTO president, too. And they were both the kind of people who wrote little cards to sick friends, or drove old people to doctors’ appointments — in fact, by the time she stopped doing that, my grandma was regularly driving people a decade or two younger than her, who would tell her how horrible it was to get old!

So it should come as no surprise that I volunteer in lots of places, all the time. This year, my sons’ school is the main focus of my volunteerism, so much so that it’s actually made me cut back on my level of involvement other places. I had to give up my shifts at the library when I picked up more work hours, and when I got elected president of the PTO, something had to give, so I dropped out of church choir for the time being.

As I’ve said before, we are incredibly blessed with an awesome neighborhood school, and I absolutely love volunteering there. This is going to sound horrible, but I like my own kids better when I’m spending time with other kids. I read aloud in their classes, I chaperone field trips, I advise the Student Council, and I do a whole host of things for the PTO. The kids all know me by name, and they wave and grin and stop me to tell me new (horrible) jokes and Important Things about their lives. I get paid in spontaneous hugs and flattering adoration. It’s a pretty awesome deal.

At the March for Women's Rights in Washington D.C., April 25, 2004. My sign says "Pro-Choice, Pro-Child"

I’m also very active politically. There are few things I like more than puttin’ on my protest boots and pounding the pavement for a cause I believe in. I dragged my family down to the capitol steps on a bright spring afternoon for a Read-In for Civility, after a stupid state legislator insulted awesome author Neil Gaiman for taking public money for a library program. I helped a friend with his city council campaign. I marched with supportive signs in front of Planned Parenthood on Good Friday. I attended activist training with Minnesotans United for All Families to help fight the proposed “marriage amendment” next year. When I believe in something, I think it’s worth acting on.

All of this is to compensate for the fact that we have almost no money at all to spare for charitable causes. I struggle constantly with wanting to support every worthy cause I encounter, especially this time of year, when the appeals are coming in hard and fast. I’ve reconciled the fact that time and talent are just as valuable to many organizations as treasure, but my heart still hasn’t relinquished all of the guilt that comes from having to turn down so many appeals. It’s hard to esteem your gifts when you don’t always esteem yourself.

Kid hugs go a long way, though.

Dec 11, 2011 - Psychology    3 Comments

In the Shadow of the Goddess: Reverb Broads 2011 #11


Reverb Broads 2011, December 11: In what ways are you like your mother? And if you’re a mother, how is/are your kid(s) like you? (courtesy of ME)

“My God, you’re just like your mother.”

I would be well-set for life, and still raking in nice dividends, if I had a buck for every time someone said that to me. And I’ve always taken that for the compliment it’s intended to be. My mom is one of the kindest, funniest, stubbornest, most frighteningly competent people you will ever meet. So, if I remind people of her so strongly that they exclaim whenever we’re in the same room, I can’t help but be flattered.

To be fair, she’s from a long line of them. My great-grandma moved west when she was eight months pregnant, and when she found that neither house nor job was as established as her deadbeat husband said, she carried my great-aunt Mary into a TENTH MONTH.

My grandma Nell in 1944

My grandma taught Red Cross first aid and swimming, and led inner-city Girl Scout troops for decades. When she came across a kid who’d been trapped with only his face visible in a sinkhole on the cliffs above Lake Michigan, she lay on the ground and gave him mouth-to-mouth until rescue crews arrived, saving his life. From them, my mom got her faith, her vision and drive to do what needs to be done, and her intolerance of bullshit.

So how am I like my mom? We tend to end up in charge of things. We’re both quick, intuitive learners, and we like teaching others what we know. That being said, we both tend to think it’s faster to just do something ourselves, so we’re terrible at delegating. We’re wizards at multitasking, and we’re crafty, so our hands are always busy. We’re unapologetic liberals. We love music, and we love singing, and we love to sing together, whether it’s to oldies on road trips, or duets in church on Christmas Eve. We’re both inclined to see the funny side of things, and we both get the giggles when we’re slappy-tired. We’re both very free and unashamed with our emotions, though I’m not quite as much a watering pot as she is. We both see typos everywhere, instantly and unignorably. We both see the best in everyone, but we’re incredibly unforgiving of ourselves. We’re both social chameleons, and we can adapt to fit into many (sometimes unlikely) groups and settings. We love to take care of other people, and blood ties are the least of our concern when it comes to family. We both snap into “terminator mode” when there’s a crisis, and woe betide anyone who gets in our paths.

And boy oh boy, do I look like her.

We never went through that awkward phase when teenage girls hate their moms. My mom was my best friend and accomplice well into adulthood. Distance and motherhood have undermined some of that closeness, but there’s a new honesty and respect that’s different than before.

I always imagined myself carrying on this amazing matriarchal tradition. When I found out I was having a second boy, I burst out into tears. The ultrasound tech quickly reassured me, “No no, he’s completely fine!” To which I replied, “I’m not worried. It’s just another goddamn boy.” I won’t be having any biological daughters; pregnancy is too rough on me, let alone sleep dep and potty training and all that again. And I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t still a disappointment. But the way I see it, boys are an endangered species, and I’ve been entrusted with two of the precious creatures to strong, smart, confident, non-asshole men.

But I see myself in my kids all the time. Sometimes, that’s awesome. I try so hard not to get irritated when I can’t get Connor’s attention out of a book long enough to answer a simple question, because I know it’s magical being that absorbed in a story. I love that Griffin watches Japanese monster movies with me, and wants to learn how to cook. They’re both born performers, and their imaginations are vast and complex, with galaxies of stories to occupy their every thought (and sometimes, like me, their sleeptalking).

And sometimes, that’s incredibly hard and heartbreaking. I wince when I catch myself yelling at them when insomnia strikes. Griffin can’t be anything but busybusybusy, and I wish we could both slow down and be still, and find joy in it. And if I could save Connor the pain of learning how to get organized, and not procrastinate, and not take every unkind comment like an arrow to the heart, I would.

Things grow differently in the shade than they do in unobstructed sun. And my mom casts a long shadow. As much like her as I am, I know I probably do too. Hopefully, I can be the kind of mom who gives her kids the shelter they need, and who gets out of the way when they’re ready to grow up.

My mom and my boys, this Thanksgiving

Me and my boys, circa 2010

10 Wonderful Things For Which I’m Giving Thanks

I like Thanksgiving fine as a holiday, but I work hard all year long to give my thanks in the moment; saving it up for a day- or month-long burst of gratitude is too hard. But I don’t always tell people who aren’t there each day all the things I’m grateful for, so I suppose if you’re not with me all the time, you might just hear the whinging. So here are ten things I’m grateful for, right now today:

1) I’m grateful it’s going to be in the 50s today, which is warm enough to send the kids outside to play when the Macy’s parade is over, but dinner isn’t ready yet.

2) I’m grateful that the turkey we bought yesterday thawed overnight, and fits in my nice old spackleware roasting pan. I’m also grateful that it didn’t come with giblets inside, because ick.

3) I’m really grateful that my mom came all the way up from Florida to be with us. Money’s too tight (and our car is too small) for us to make it down there comfortably for the holidays, so it’s been almost two years since I’ve seen her, and she’s seen the boys. It’s not easy for her to take off work, or be away from my dad and brother, but here she is, and that’s awesome. My mom and I never went through that awkward phase when I was a teenager and was supposed to hate her and the world, and though motherhood has changed our relationship in ways neither of us could’ve predicted, she’s still one of my best friends.

4) I’m grateful that the new Muppet movie was so completely awesome. I’m a hardcore Muppet fan (the Onion t-shirt that says, “I understand the Muppets on a much deeper level than you do” was practically made for me), and I’ve awaited the movie with a mix of wild anticipation and stomach-clenching dread. Knowing Jason Segel, as much a mega-fan as I am, was helming the project was a comfort, and the movie was everything I hoped it would be. I smiled until my cheeks hurt. I am content.

5) I’m wildly grateful for my job. I work on cool products and projects, with awesome creative bosses who value my contributions, serving customers who really appreciate the efforts I make. And the money doesn’t hurt either.

6) I’m beyond grateful for Jill Gebeke, Kim Hwang, Lori Brown, Kris Christensen, Melanie Hjelm, Nicole Tschohl, Alicia Liddle, and all the fantastic teachers and staff at Chelsea Heights Elementary. From the moment we walked into that school last year, they embraced Connor and Griffin with love, compassion, and understanding. They really want every kid to be happy and fulfilled, and they appreciate our efforts as parents to support their education. We could’ve moved Connor to the gifted magnet school after he blew the top off his aptitude tests last year, but we really couldn’t imagine a better school for our boys.

7) I’m so very grateful for our fantastic church home, White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church. It’s further away than other UU churches in the community, but completely worth the hike to hear our phenomenal minister Victoria Safford, to have our boys in the hands of the wonderful Religious Education coordinator Janet Hanson and her dedicated volunteers, and to sit in the beautiful sanctuary and watch the seasons pass outside the gorgeous wall of windows. It’s a place that feeds our souls in ways we never even knew we needed.

8) I’m crazy-grateful for the outrageously cool friends I have all over the world, and the magic of Facebook and Twitter and email and Skype that make it possible to feel close to them every day. I revel in the successes they enjoy, and marvel that so many diverse, smart, and brilliantly creative people would lavish their time and attention on little me.

9) I’m intensely grateful for the roof over our heads. We live in a safe neighborhood, with neighbors who love our kids and share theirs with us. It takes a village, and we’ve knit a little one among these apartment buildings. Our community looks out for one another, and forms a safety net we haven’t enjoyed almost anywhere we’ve lived since the boys were first born.

10) And finally, today and every minute of every day, I’m grateful for my husband. I’ve already enumerated some of the awesomeness that is our marriage, but I can never say enough how lucky I am to have a partner in all my earthly endeavors.

May your bellies be full, your hearts be light, and gratitude settle into your bones and move you to lift up those thanks to the people who bring love and light into your life.

Oct 11, 2011 - Sex Ed    17 Comments

Cycles, Noculars, and Me

This may rank as the least important and dramatic statement of its kind in the history of National Coming Out Day, but here goes:

Folks, I’m bisexual.

For those of you who’ve only recently gotten to know me through this blog or some other social medium, this just makes one more wing on the BizarroLand Barbie Dream House of my personality. And for those of you who’ve known me for a very long time, you know how completely and wholeheartedly I’m committed to Cam, darling husband of 15 years and previously posted fame. In either case, you’re probably both asking the same question: so what?

The short answer is: so absolutely nothing. I’ve defined myself as about a 2 or 3 on the Kinsey Scale for almost two decades now, but I never felt the need to share this very widely. I don’t feel any urge to experiment or anything — I’ve already put on the metaphorical sweatpants. Much more importantly, Cam is my love, my soul mate, and my bonded life partner. I made vows; I take them seriously. We’re in this for keeps. My evolving understanding of my own sexuality has zero impact on that commitment, so nobody go freaking out.

As for the other relationships in my life, I expect just as little impact. My oldest kid really doesn’t care, and my youngest is too young to care, but we’ve raised them since day one to believe that love is love, and as long as they know that Mom and Dad are the same as they ever were, I figure I’ll get as much attention as a pile of broccoli. My parents’ only concern was fidelity, which was immediately allayed. My place of work is supportive and EOE and all that. The school where I serve as PTO president is home to a number of same-sex couples who are very active in its politics and activities. And we’re Unitarian Universalists, one of the very first denominations (if not the first) to openly welcome GLBT members and ordained clergy.

The long answer has to do with the “why bother?” side of the equation. Several months back, columnist Dan Savage wrote an article in which he tried to defend himself against perennial accusations of bi-phobia. It gives an interesting insight into the internal politics which plague any group with factions — in this way, the GLBT movement is hardly different from any geeky fanbase fraught with edition wars.

He makes a strong case for the fact that part of the absence of good press about bisexuals in the mainstream media stems from the fact that the majority of bisexuals tend to settle down in hetero relationships, for some reason, and then shut up about their identity: “…it would be great if more bisexuals in opposite-sex relationships were out to their friends, families, and coworkers. More out bisexuals would mean less of that bisexual invisibility that bisexuals are always complaining about. If more bisexuals were out, more straight people would know they actually know and love sexual minorities, which would lead to less anti-LGBT bigotry generally, which would be better for everyone.” I felt that indictment pretty keenly. Between that, and an absolutely amazing experience of love and acceptance having nothing at all to do with sexuality at Twin Cities Pride this summer, I decided it was time to join the visible minority.

Many of you know I’ve been a dedicated activist for LGBT causes since 1992, because every human deserves the exact same opportunities for love, dignity, and fulfillment. Ironically, I think it’s my long history as a “straight ally” that kept me from allowing myself access to the bisexual identity. I haven’t suffered in silence. I haven’t struggled for acceptance. I haven’t been oppressed on the basis of my sexual orientation. I haven’t been personally vested in the rights I’ve worked to secure. And I’m incredibly fortunate to have been able to marry (and secure the immigration status!) of my chosen life partner without so much as a second thought. So where do I get off investing myself with an identity which others have borne and bought with blood and tears? It seems like it depends on so much more than just sexual orientation.

But then we’re right back around to the short answer again: it IS that simple. I’m bisexual. I’m also happily married, so that’s as far as it goes. But for all my family and friends, here’s why it should matter to you: if you didn’t know and love a bisexual person before, you do now. You have for a long time. And it didn’t kill you, or damn you, or give you cooties. And I’m not evil, or unfaithful, or a bad mother. I’m still me, no better, no worse.

Just like everyone.

Working the Beads

I bought my mala beads almost ten years ago, in a huge bead store in Mountain View, CA. To be perfectly honest, I liked the way they looked in people’s hands. I wanted to try to cultivate that practice, in hopes that they would bring me some of the peace and acceptance I saw reflected in the aspect of those who wore them. I had just been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and I was locked in the first of many struggles for respect and funding with my university department. I desperately needed peace and acceptance.

The beads, at least, were only $1.99.

I’ve worn them on and off over the years, but I never really picked up the habit of using them as a spiritual focus. Maybe it’s because I’m not much of a mantra girl (note to self: awesome new superhero name). I can’t settle on just one idea and focus on it for very long — I’m the Queen of Lateral Thinking (2nd note to self: awesome new Nobilis character).

But my stomach had been tying itself in knots for days over the impending Troy Davis execution, and by the time I left work yesterday afternoon, I was well and truly sickened in heart and belly, on top of the upper respiratory thing that already had me at a disadvantage for air and sleep. So, desperately needing peace and acceptance, I fished my mala beads from the depths of my jewelry box with 75 minutes left before the scheduled time of death.

And, while I believe as an article of my faith that the focused will can change the unfolding of the universe, neither my will nor that of the hundreds of thousands watching and waiting last night stopped the killing of Troy Davis. This can’t be a hopeful, new-world story like the Repeal Day one, and in 12 minutes, I’m going to have to wake Connor and tell him that all the hope and doubt and logic and justice didn’t save a man’s life. I’m afraid of what little piece of him will disappear forever with those words.

But I learned something about the practice of the beads as they clicked through my fingers steadily for over five hours last night. I didn’t stick to just one thought that whole time; in fact, it was the evolution of my focus that tells the story of the night better than any news report can.

When I first lit a candle and picked them up, I started whispering, “May you find peace,” and again, in the spirit of total honesty, I probably didn’t just mean Troy Davis. I meant the crowding protesters in Jackson GA and Washington DC and London. I even meant, judgmentally, the parole board that had voted 3-2 the day before to deny clemency, and the GA Supreme Court that had refused a stay of execution. But mostly, I meant my own roiling stomach and twisted heart.

At 15 minutes to 7.00pm Eastern, tears started falling, and I asked Griffin to come sit with me and snuggle. He knows when I need comfort, and he’s more at ease sitting with my grief without trying to fix it than I often am, so he just nestled into my side and started to play with the beads too. He asked what I was saying, and at that point, I realized the words had changed. Now it was simply, “I wish you peace,” and I was trying to speak directly to Troy. Griffin liked those words, and he liked the slide of the beads, so I held the string’s tension and we went back and forth, each saying the tiny prayer for a little while, as we waited for the news to tell us that a man was dead.

But the news didn’t come, and the TV networks faltered — those that were covering it, shamefully few — and so the click of my mouse on Twitter joined the click of the beads in my other hand as I waited for news. And the words changed again as the first messages of the delay came through: “Please stop this.” As it became apparent the US Supreme Court was considering a stay, they changed again: “You can stop this.”

They didn’t. Not couldn’t — didn’t. And the process reversed itself. I wished Troy Davis peace as the tears rolled down, until they announced his death. And I whispered, “May you find peace” as the media witnesses spoke and the analysis began and the verb tenses changed.

But my object had changed. I was wishing peace to the families, to the guards, to the lawyers, to the activists, to the witnesses.

I was wishing peace to those who had waited, those who had held their breath, those who had hoped for the hope and justice that our system almost never delivers.

I was wishing peace to those whose hearts hunger for something so deep and unnameable that they think the death of another human would quench it.

I was wishing peace for those who would sleep and get up and fight on, and those who would not find sleep that night, in the shadow of too much doubt.

On the Morning of The Repeal

When my sons leave the house in the morning, I don’t tell them to keep their schoolyard crushes for little girls. Their bus driver doesn’t ask them who they’ll marry when they grow up.

When the kids get to school, they don’t ask their teachers who waits for them at the end of a long day filling their heads with knowledge and wisdom. The lunchroom monitors don’t tell the children that heterosexuality is as healthy as the salad bar.

The parents who line up with strollers and siblings, with minivans and dinner plans, want to be told what their children learned that day, not that they are only attracted to the opposite sex. They want their children to learn to hang up their coats, not that there’s such a thing as an incorrect place to hang your heart. They dig deep to find reserves of patience and energy for their beloved families. They don’t have any left to waste on telling someone else that their family is any less beloved.

The sky didn’t ask before it let down the rain in the pre-dawn grey, nor did it tell us that the sun would shine warmly by mid-morning. The geese didn’t ask one another before beginning their long journey south; they do not tell us where their stops and starts will be.

I did not ask to be born in this country, or in this body, or to my parents, but I have told my basic identity freely, without fear, my whole life. The times I’ve had to hide, to keep some piece of myself secret, to “pass,” I’ve been able to without killing myself from the inside. And when I fell in love, though the barriers were high and deep and every other physical measurement for which there exists a metric, my country and my insurance and my job added no obstacles, passed no judgment on my choice. When I say who I am and what I want to do with my life, my patriotism, capability, or the disposition of my soul have never been questioned.

And today, on the morning of the repeal, when all but one thing hasn’t changed at all, may these things be true for more of the bravest and most honorable of my fellow Americans.