Oct 31, 2011 - Physical Ed, Psychology    4 Comments

The Boo Factor

It’s Halloween, but there will be no horror movie viewing in the Banks house. At least, not for me. Because I can’t watch horror movies.

Please note: I said I CAN’T watch horror movies. Not “don’t want to,” but “can’t.” I love all the ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night. But if something goes BOO, it’s all over for me.

The best we can figure is that my startle reflex is seriously frotzed. If something jumps out at me — no matter how cheezy or predictable — it feels like I’ve been hit by lightning. Red cable, black cable, ZOT — 50,000 volts straight into my nervous system.

And, like you’d expect, this does not have a good effect on the rest of my body (or my mood). The initial impact is a distinctly electrical sensation, similar to the crawly, needley feeling of the electrical stimulation therapy that physical therapists sometimes use. I’m left with a horrid, plaguey feeling, with muscle pain that’s similar to the day after serious overexertion plus poor sleep, a vicious headache on par with a migraine, and nausea. This all sticks around for anywhere from an hour or two, up to I’ve had a chance to get a good, restorative sleep.

I haven’t always had this reaction. In fact, at my tween and teen sleepovers filled with pizza and nail polish, I was the one around whom all my shrieky friends huddled, as if they could absorb my bravery through osmosis. I began a lifelong love affair with Hitchcock movies in the darkened theater; my grandma took me to see classic movies on the big screen at Milwaukee’s great landmark theaters. I even saw Alien for the first time from a 70mm print — if you’ve ever been in one of those landmark theaters, imagine the screen AFTER the curtains have been cranked all the way back, then slap a frisky Giger monster on it.

And I’m not a nervous wreck about other things that leave folks reaching for the smelling salts. I’m the chief bug killer in our household, and in general, there isn’t anything in nature that does much more than just ook me slightly. And I’m crazier now for roller coasters and thrill rides than I ever was as a kid — you can’t tear me away from Tower of Terror at Disney Hollywood Studios, or the Hulk coaster at Universal Islands of Adventure.

But whatever enjoyment I might be able to get from horror movies for their stories or effects just isn’t worth my physical “boo response.” I know my limits: the tension and release of the final scenes of The Silence of the Lambs is about as much as I can take without triggering the backlash. I’ve got a few people who helpfully advise me on a Boo Rating for films I’m considering, and every once in a while, I give them a try, but that’s usually an abortive effort. I managed about 20 minutes of The Others before I vaulted off the couch like I was sitting a springplate. For the most part, it’s comparable to someone who’s allergic to strawberries giving them a whirl every couple of years. Like you’d expect, it usually ends with the phrase, “Yup, still makes me miserable. Next time I think this is a good idea, hit me, okay?”

I don’t know why I’m wired this way, or whether it’s from the fibromyalgia, or my sensory processing stuff, or a PTSD leftover, or my general psychiatric issues. I’ve never seen any research about this effect, though a woman at a fibro support group once said her fight-or-flight response had gone all wonky too. I’d be immensely grateful to hear from other folks who experience something similar, or who have read any research that might relate to this.

As a creative-type person, it’s incredibly frustrating to know there’s a whole genre of material that I’m excluded from. Sure, I may think that many of the current crop of horror movies are stupid and exploitative, but I’d like the choice to opt out on the material’s merits. Missing all the monsters because my body chemistry trumps my logical mind makes me nuts.

Oct 28, 2011 - Fine Arts    16 Comments

I Still Believe

Sunday night, I was born again in the fires of rock and roll.

I’ve never experienced the bliss and fervor I see on the faces of people at religious revivals, so I can’t be sure it feels the same. But if their god can’t offer them the same welling joy, the fullness of heart, the redemption of primal psychic and sensory needs, then I can’t fathom the attraction. And if some would say the bone-deep delight, the hope for the continued existence of love and beauty in this world, the honest-to-goodness peace on Earth and goodwill to all men that settled onto me with every blessed chord isn’t divine, well then, I would have to tell them that they’ve never touched that state of being.

By now, you think I’m exaggerating, overstating the case for the sake of a writerly challenge or a philosophical argument. I’m really not.

A big part of it was the music. If you’re not a fan of Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, let me deliver unto you that great good news. Theirs is a happy polyamory of punk, folk, and old-fashioned rock and roll — if you need an equation, maybe this will help: Frank Turner & the Sleeping Souls = Green Day + Flogging Molly + Buddy Holly. Turner’s got a singular voice that fits all three genres perfectly, if you can conceive of such a thing without hearing it, equally at home in the cozy black box of a venue that is the famed Triple Rock Social Club or singing wrenching tales of blood and rebellion in a militia camp. And his ability to hold true to pitch and somehow stay melodic, no matter how raucous the refrain gets, is a rare thing as well. The band is equally accomplished, from the metronymic steadiness of the drums, to the ruffled arpeggios the keyboard layers on top of classic guitar and bass.

And the songs — Turner’s got the gift of nailing the catchy hook and rousing chorus, in both tune and lyric. The best of his songs should be the anthems of nations or, at the very least, the downtrodden masses. Even the ones that bemoan the toll of age and cynicism on a generation too tired to be the happily angry punks we once were bestow an unexpected optimism and communal goodwill. As a result, fans come ready to sing along, and I watched with keen curiosity to see whether an arms-around-shoulders biergarten sway, or a rollicking mosh pit would break out (a bit of both, at various points, as it turned out). And when you’re singing every song en masse, it’s no stretch to smile and talk with your newfound allies, in a way that just doesn’t happen at even the most intimate of other concerts. This was a show to restore a person’s faith in his fellows.

That we were even there was the definition of Serendipity, or Destiny, or whatever you will. I took the wrong pair of headphones (broken) and the wrong exit for home on a trip to the doctor’s one morning this fall. So while I’d been keen to listen to my own playlist, and to do it for a lot less time, instead I had the company of The Current, MPR’s excellent modern station, as I waded through snarls of traffic. About 15 minutes after I should’ve been home, “I Still Believe” came on the air. I was smitten — new favorite song, on the spot. When I got back, I queued up the YouTube video to show my boys. After it finished playing, up popped a little box, announcing: “Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls at the Triple Rock Social Club, October 23. Would you like to know more?” Why yes, yes I would. And at $13 a ticket, how could I pass up the chance?

So there we stood on Sunday night. We’d enjoyed the opening act, Into It Over It, enough to buy the guy’s album, but I knew I couldn’t make the whole show on my feet. We slunk off to the old bar next door, and I felt like a lame, hollowed-out, decrepit old punk. But a nice long sit, enhanced by some unexpectedly excellent comfort food, at least left me feeling competent to remain upright for the rest of the night. I was sore, and glaring at the hale and hearty 20-somethings occupying the few seats, when Turner and company took the stage.

And then they played, and I went to a different place. By the end of the first song, my jaded concert-going self was tingling with the knowledge that this was going to be an exceptional show. By the end of the second song, I forgot my pain and fatigue, no mean feat these days. And by the end of the third song, I found myself unexpectedly crying a little, as my senses sizzled like Fourth of July sparklers. My body thrummed, comforted and content as the heartbeat of my long-lost rock and roll mother lodged next to my own, bass in my belly and drums in my feet.

I was over-joyed, the pleasure of it all spilling out my fingertips like light. I couldn’t stop smiling. I wanted to run outside, take everyone by the hand, and bring them into this place, this time, this feeling. And I left the show restored in all the thirsty crevices I didn’t know were cracked.

So I’ll just let Frank and the boys sing us out:

“I still believe in the saints
In Jerry Lee and Johnny, and all the greats
I still believe in the sound
That has the power to raise a temple, and tear it down
I still believe in the need
For guitars and drums and desperate poetry
I still believe that everyone
Can find a song for every time they’ve lost, and every time they’ve won
So just remember folks we’re not just saving lives, we’re saving souls and we’re having fun…

Now who’d’ve thought, after all,
Something as simple as rock ‘n’ roll would save us all?
Who’d’ve thought that after all it was rock n roll.”


Oct 22, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    4 Comments

Letting the Terrorists Win

I’m used to pressure. In fact, I’m one of those freakish people who actually operate better under a fair amount of it than I do when everything’s going just swimmingly. In high school, I acquired my only-partly-facetious nickname “Emergency Lass” for jumping into musical ensembles and yearbook deadlines and graduation preparations and a whole host of other situations, and not just filling the gap adequately, but kicking a fair amount of ass at the required tasks. My last semester of college ended up comprising 22 credit hours, plus 3 for choir, my wedding, grad school applications, a car accident, and a half-time job. I got the best GPA I’d ever had stateside.

Naturally, I was angry. I mean, come on! When you do well and almost die doing it, it makes people think you can handle that level of activity and pressure all the time, and you’re left yelling at their backs, “But no! Didn’t you see me almost dying!? That wasn’t normal!”

I thought I understood pressure. But that was before.

Before Real Life.

Before I was a mom.

Before I’d lived through an NPR membership drive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about extortion lately. Our kids know summer is the lean season, typically, and they tend to be a lot better about not asking for things, always a bit of a paradox, since you’d think they’d be more desperate for distraction in the depths of those long, school-less days. But for some reason, the switch has flipped, and they are really laying on the hard sell every time we turn around. If we ask what they’re hungry for, they name a restaurant. If we say we have to go to the store, they present a list of demands. I’m surprised fuel and a plane to Cuba aren’t among them, some days.

The fact that the answer is no, has consistently been no, deters them not at all. You’ve got to admire that kind of persistence, and maybe I would if I weren’t so exhausted by the constant struggle. Because their response to “no” is as consistent as my delivery: shocked outrage, followed by whining and temper, general intractability, creative retribution, sullen slouching-about. Pick one from Column A, two from Column B.

This is not, however, the much-vaunted “culture of entitlement” you read about in the news. I get really angry about this, when people say how spoiled kids are when they ask for things they want so readily. My kids feel no more entitled to Stuff than any other kid out there, and I want them to feel comfortable asking whatever question passes through their little prefrontal corteces, so when the important ones come along, there’s no hesitation there from the time I screamed at them over a stupid Happy Meal.

They’re freaking kids. Part of the psychological profile of elementary-school-age kids is that they’re little egomaniacs — their world is SUPPOSED to revolve around their own needs and wants at that age. What about human infant rearing doesn’t encourage this way of thinking? We don’t leave bottles and dry diapers at strategic posts throughout the house, on the floor where the kid can reach them if they work hard enough to roll over there. We go to them as soon as their breathing alters; why wait until they’re cranked up to a full-on wail? Let’s be totally honest here: this is as much for our own ease and peace as it is for theirs

If you’re a bad parent, if you’re actually spoiling them, they think that’s normal at any age. But at this age? It’s normal. All I figure I can do for them is be consistent in my responses, and hand them increasingly complex rhetorical tools with which to build their appeals, so they can argue well by the time they need to make the arguments that really matter.

I joked about the MPR membership drive as the model of extortion, but if the kids were really paying attention to how to get the job done, they’d listen to those masters of soul erosion. Those same familiar voices that bring us the news and entertainment I bathe my eardrums in as I putter around the warehouse or navigate the roadways turn their earnest midwestern accents toward a singular appeal for eight days. They change up the pitch, the rhythm, the variance of pathetic and logical appeals like a championship boxer, looking for your tender spots. They dangle colorful lures in a landscape suddenly dark in the artificially imposed news blackout — of course you want a chili red diner mug that reassures you, every time you feel low, that “YOU make MPR happen.”

Even the language of membership appeals to us at our basest needs: “Become a Sustainer.” Who doesn’t want to be a sustainer to something or someone? Clearly, my kids don’t think I’m sustaining them — I say no all the time! But if I say yes to MPR, just this once, I’m a Sustainer. I sustain.” My boss thinks a better name would be “Enabler.” I think she’s probably right. At least we’d be closer to the right sentiment if, after crawling into the broom closet at work and surreptitiously dialing the number to pledge a measly $5 a month, thus obtaining the prized Chico bag with MPR logo, and confessing our breathless addiction to the infectious laughter of the Car Talk guys, we had to mutter the phrase, “I wanna be an Enabler.”

You think you can torture me? Bring it. Waterboarding is so 2006. Stress positions are nothing next to carrying all the groceries in from the car in one trip. Electrocution? Who do you think you are, Jack Bauer? Kids, pay attention. Terrorists, both foreign and domestic, take note. If you want to break people down, really get everything they’ve got and leave them begging to give you more, you don’t need to beat them, bomb them, or bankrupt them. You just need to give them a nice coffee mug and tell them you really need and appreciate them. Don’t believe me? Just ask any of the 13,500 poor slobs who fell for it in the last eight days.

Oct 20, 2011 - Psychology    7 Comments

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank

Last week we got a letter from Connor’s teacher informing us that he would be receiving an award at the first student assembly of the year, on the 18th, at 1.40 pm.  Since Cam and I are blessed with flexible work schedules, we resolved to be there to witness his always-entertaining surprise and cheer him on.

So, on Monday, Cam picked me up from work at about 12.30; we snarfed down a burrito together by way of a lunch date, then headed over to the school. We breezed in at 1.40 on the nose. I saw one of Connor’s classmates in the hallway, where she hailed me with a big smile: “Hi, Connor’s mom!” (I love it when they call me that.)

“Hi, Lila!” I replied with a big smile of my own. “Why aren’t you in the assembly?” She kept smiling, but she gave me that look — you know the one. The one that says, “And the person I know is actually an alien.” At that moment, the principal came around the corner, saw us, and grinned.

“You’re a day early,” she said.

Honestly, what could we do but laugh? “Better a day early than a day late,” I said, trying desperately not to look as stupid as I felt.

Here’s the thing: I’m smart. I’m not bragging, or saying anyone else isn’t. But I’m pretty clever. I’ll also say that I test well, and I’ve studied a lot of things for a lot of years. However, this has absolutely nothing to do with my capacity to get by in everyday life.

This isn’t a “common sense” issue. As a child, grownups frequently said that I had loads of “book smarts,” but not a lick of “common sense,” whatever that meant. They also said I was “intellectually advanced, but socially backward.” To me, these things now mean that somebody should’ve been screening me for Asperger’s Syndrome as a child. I’m not 100% sure that’s my deal, but those platitudes were used to spackle over a lot of struggles I faced as I tried to interact with a world that didn’t follow the rules I’d been taught or the examples I’d observed.

In the Middle Ages, scholars used a mnemonic device called a “memory palace” to expand their capacity to remember texts in an age before easily duplicable books. I’m in awe of this technique and its users, because I know it’s beyond me. If my memory is a structure, it’s the haunted Victorian house on the hill outside town, its windows broken, shutters hanging by one hinge, siding peeling and falling away where frost and wind have pried stealthily over the seasons. Once, it housed a hoarder of the most random, eccentric sort: she frequented libraries, church rummage sales, abandoned schools, failed campaigns, futile protests, forgotten ancestors, buried archives, ancient cemeteries. There are gestures at organization — rusty file cabinets, ingenious labeling systems, half-implemented folder schemes — but if anything, they may only complicate the process, like removing something from its usual place “for safekeeping,” only to lose it because it’s not where you normally keep it.

The practical results are twofold. The first is the bifurcation of my available memory. I’ve got the usual short-term surface area that everyone’s got, which is pretty much like a very large refrigerator door/corkboard/Post-It wall. Then there’s what I call The Processor. It’s basically deep storage, and if I want something out of it, it works like the old European libraries used to. You have to write down what you want on a little slip of paper, give it to the scowling old lady behind the desk (who’s not at all convinced you deserve to be there at all), and wait patiently for the workers to bring it back from the shelves in their own time, so sit down with your silly pencil and white cotton gloves and shut up, you ungrateful American.

The Processor occasionally results in odd and embarrassing outbursts, as it turns up answers when you least expect them. My poor parents have been experiencing this longest. It usually happens for me with trivial knowledge, though not always, and it’s always something that I immediately know that I know, and feels like it’s on “the tip of my brain” but just can’t come up with. This feeling persists quite strongly for hours, even days, until with what feels like an audible pop, out comes the answer, so forcefully that I have the almost uncontrollable urge to shout it, no matter what’s going on around me.

The second effect of my messy memory palace is this: I’m pretty sure that my brain is at capacity. It can hold no more. If something new wants in, something old has to come out. You can feel it eject, even hear it: poit.

Unfortunately, though, what comes out isn’t always old or useless — it’s frequently the thing that just landed, and as such, might really be important. So, the new pediatrician’s phone number? Oops, there go the 5 things I need from the grocery store. Have to change my email password to meet some new security standard for work? You better hope your birthday isn’t anytime soon, because it just got kicked right out of my mental calendar. No, it’d be nice if I could shed all the words to “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls — I mean, seriously, who’s got the balls to sing THAT at karaoke? Or my high school long-distance boyfriends’ addresses. Or all the lines for the first half of the movie Heathers (but only until after the 1st Heather’s funeral). Nobody needs that stuff.

But that’s not what gets evicted from that creaky, collapsing house on the hill. It hardly matters that fibromyalgia sends banks of fog rolling through like weather systems. And I wish sometimes that one of my sensory things didn’t mean having perfect, focused, vividly visual memories of such a large percentage of my life. If that house has ghosts, those reels play out in the rooms and down the halls at random intervals. Still, like every messy room, every disastrous desk, every once in a while, it yields the most surprising treasures, the most unexpected gems.

Mostly, though, my memory just leaves me kicked out of the room for ruining trivia games, and a day early for school assemblies.

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.

Oct 10, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    12 Comments

The Walking Wounded

My kids are Those Kids. Not the ones who talk through concerts or scream in movies, thank all the gods and little fishes. But the ones who throw tantrums for toys in Target? Or run down the aisles in the grocery stores? Or carry on conversations in restaurants loudly enough for every other diner to clearly hear over their own?

Yeah, those are my kids.

I get that everyone is tired of Those Kids, especially people with no kids of their own. I’ve seen how quickly articles with titles like “Curb Your Brats” get shared on Facebook, and how much gleeful support has rallied around business owners who decide to bar children from their premises.

Kids aren’t useful and quiet, inconvenient to an allergic few, like service animals. They’re unpredictable in every way: unannounced bodily processes, loud inappropriate emotional outbursts, irregular and unapproved repositioning of their messy selves. And parents and children alike think everyone should be willing to accept their shrugs and smiles and apologies just because everyone once was one. Ludicrous.

There’s no question that some children are much better behaved than others. Some children just seem calmer, sweeter, neater, and their parents receive that rarest of praise: “I hardly even noticed s/he was there!” A lot of that is just disposition, but I don’t mean to detract from what must be very calm, loving parenting in a steady environment. I’m so happy for those families, and what they’re able to achieve.

That just isn’t an option for us. My oldest son Connor has Asperger’s, but even without that, he, like his younger brother Griffin, is an Active Child. This is a category that is itself in flux; author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka has written several books about “spirited children” that propose some interesting theories advancing the discussion. What does this mean? They are incredibly smart, lightning fast, hair trigger, and non-freaking-stop from the second they wake to the second they relent and fall asleep.

And whatever mitigating influence my husband and I could offer our kids by giving them a stable home, continuous medical care, and high-quality restricted diet since birth — all of which we’ve had recommended by various well-meaning friends and teachers — are beyond are reach, mostly for economic reasons. We cannot buy a home. We are dependent on state health care, which comes with restrictions. Organic food and what’s left once one eliminates gluten, dairy, or all sugars, are foods that we cannot afford in the volume it takes to feed a family of four on our income.

As much as we try to shield them from those realities, we carry that stress, and we know it affects our interactions with them. My physical and mental health also affect my interactions with them, an unavoidable truth for which I carry a staggering amount of guilt that probably contributes to those self-same conditions (vicious spiral, that).

So what do you do with kids like these, or any kids, when they’ve got you at the end of your rope? The quick and dirty — and very satisfying and least efficient — option is to lose your shit. Scream back at them, burst out crying, spank, make exotic threats, bring down the Hammer of God. The child sure as hell regrets his actions immediately, but you sure as hell regret them later.

Are there times when this is all you can do? Yes, I really believe there are. Every parent’s got their buttons that makes the Red Haze rise. Griffin’s got a doozy: I tell him to stop doing something. He doesn’t. I say, “Stop doing that, or I’ll take away X for the rest of the day.” He says, “Oh yeah? I’m going to keep doing it more and worse until we leave/you buy this thing/I get my way/you take that back.” BOOM — instant fury. I was in a store the other day with him, and he wouldn’t stop touching fragile things on the shelves. I said, “Give me both your hands. I don’t want you touching things anymore.” His response: “I can still touch them with my feet.” I leaned down and growled at him, “I will tie your hands and feet together and wear you like a handbag.” He stopped long enough at least to assess the odds of me having rope in my purse. I’m not always that creative, and some of you may find that threat horrific to make at all, let alone in public, but I regularly reach that point with him these days.

The next option is to find your inner Buddha and appeal to their inner humanity. You take a moment to evaluate the environment, and what’s affecting the kid, then you sit down with him and help unravel the tangledy ball of emotions that’s making him act like a colossal jerk. Sometimes, this really works, and you have a truly insightful conversation that makes him aware of some new tripwire that we can work together to avoid or minimize in the future. But most of the time, this is a boring torture worse than pain of death to the child, and/or devolves into the Airing of the Grievances in which everything you and everyone else have ever done is screamed out through tears of rage before doors are slammed and Xanax is taken.

Finally, as with every good and human endeavor, there’s the middle path. And like every good middle path, it’s got angry yelling and compassionate insight, with a healthy dose of deep breathing and a sense of humor. You admire the passion and energy that drive these little engines of discovery and innovation; you give points for perseverance and rhetorical style; and you acknowledge that yelling at a kid after the fourth time you’ve asked him politely to pick up the damn plate in the middle of the floor is not going to squish his special little snowflakeness.

The single best thing other parents can do for one another is to be gentle with one another, especially those who don’t have Active Kids toward those who do. Face it: parents just aren’t going to get the support or sympathy we’d like or deserve from childless adults, or even adults who’ve already done their childrearing and want to be done with the screamy droolmonsters. But the shit parents give one another is absolutely unforgiveable. There’s this hypocritical cult about motherhood today: it’s the single most important job a woman can do, but you’re expected to do it in absolute seclusion, and if you’re not doing it “exactly right,” you deserve to be publicly flayed. And you wonder why antidepressants and wine are essential motherhood equipment?

Nobody knows the story behind that screaming kid in the store or restaurant. The vast majority of special needs, both juvenile and adult, are invisible, as are personal struggles. You walked in in the middle of the movie. Philo wrote, “Be kind to one another, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle.” Parenthood is one of the rare battles that many of us have the scars from. The least we can do is give each other credit for serving the best we can.

Oct 7, 2011 - Literature    3 Comments

Time Enough At Last

Our house looks like a bomb went off. A small truck bomb, packed with multiplication flash cards, Star Wars guys, broken crayons, clothes, and empty cups.

And let’s not forget the printed material. There could’ve been a simultaneous CIA leafleting-from-the-skies campaign over every inch of our house, dropping readable matter like Minnesota snow. Fantasy books, romance books, picture books, chapter books, RPG books, video game guides, coloring books, workbooks, catalogs, newspapers, magazines, comics, junk mail, recipes, assembly instructions, maps, notes, drafts, calendars, phone messages, receipts, grocery lists, homework. Wobbly stacks, sliding drifts, impenetrable walls of paper.

Maddening as it is — like, “I’d like to drop a match in it before my mom visits for Thanksgiving” maddening — this is more or less how I grew up, always with something to read no further than my elbow. And if it’s there, I can’t not read it, if you know what I mean. The words go in as fast as I see them, so as I gaze around, I’m constantly bombarded by info; I’m not conscious of the time it takes to scan text. The inability to glance past things without absorbing them might be overstimulating for some people. Hell, it might be overstimulating for me, I don’t know; I’ve always been like this, so I don’t know any differently.

In fact, I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. I was spelling and mastering simple sight words at 18 months, and I tested at a fourth-grade reading level when they tried to figure out what to do with me in kindergarten testing. I was lucky to have parents and grandparents who were pretty relaxed about letting me chow through reading material far beyond my age level, and I satisfied my voracious appetite for it by simply keeping as many books going at once as I could. Even now, I’m rarely reading fewer than three or four separate titles at once.

Now I’m going to ask you to do something. Take all of what I’ve just described — in my home, in my youth — and erase it. Just use that little Photoshop tool and scrub every last piece of reading material out of the picture, like a neutron text bomb. Imagine a house messy with toys and clothes and dishes, but no books or magazines or newspapers or homework. Imagine a young child, hungry to learn, curious about the world, stuck gazing out a window or watching TV or sitting on a stoop. Try, just try, to imagine a setting with absolutely nothing to read.

To me, this is the purest science fiction. It’s the Twilight Zone. I can wrap my head around time travel, and quantum physics, and non-humanoid aliens, and a billion other things, but I literally can’t conjure the image of a home without books. I shudder to imagine growing up in one, and it is pure horror to imagine raising my kids in one.

I’ve been trying to imagine this all week, since I heard a statistic from a 2006 study publicized by the United Way. The study found that, in middle-income homes, the ratio of books per child is 13 books for each child, which is itself a ludicrously low number compared with the bounty to which I am accustomed. That won’t even fill a single shelf — they’ll keep falling over.

But in low-income neighborhoods, that number flips and sinks like the Poseidon. The ratio becomes only one book for every THREE HUNDRED CHILDREN. Let me rephrase: one poor child gets one book, and 299 poor children get none. No books. Zero. Inconceivable.

My kids’ school has about 450 children. If this statistic extended into that setting, the school in that low-income neighborhood would have two books. But at least in a school, those two books would get passed around. Households don’t usually do that, so that one book doesn’t make its way around among the 300 kids. The other 299 just do without.

My first impulse, of course, is to go directly into the boys’ bedroom with a trash bag and sweep up every single book they haven’t read in the last two weeks, and drive down to the poor neighborhoods and just start handing out books. I know that’s not practical, and I know there are groups designed to put books into exactly the hands that need them most. You can bet your backside I’ve been doing research into exactly which groups can use exactly which books, and how to make those donations — if I find anything beyond United Way that’s available on a national level, I’ll post it in comments.

Ever seen that episode of The Twilight Zone with Burgess Meredith as the harried bank teller who just wants time to read his book without his boss or his wife interrupting him? That episode’s what I named this post after. Eventually, he gets the time and the books, along with a cruel, ironic twist. But imagine if you had the time, and the desire to read, but no books. That episode’s playing all day, every day.


NB — Another point worth making: lack of access to books means lack of access to ideas that empower people to change their circumstances. Often, the ideas that motivate people to change their lives are found in banned books, which are even harder to access if you depend on schools and libraries, rather than your own purchasing power.

The Uprise Books Project aims to change that by putting free copies of banned books in the hands of impoverished and at-risk youth, exposing them to radical, perspective-shifting ideas. You can learn more and support the project here: http://www.uprisebooks.org/about/.

Oct 6, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    8 Comments

15 Amazing Things About My Marriage


Today is my 15th wedding anniversary, and I really wish there were something extravagant I could do to show everyone that I have the best husband since somebody invented them. But I don’t have access to a major newspaper, a Jumbotron, a biplane, or a parade permit. We’ve been so stressed out about money and everything, I didn’t even get him a card (I suppose I could’ve made him one with my ninja paper skills, but that takes time, which I’m currently using all of to work for more moneys).

But I do have a blog, so for the three of you who read it, please bear with me while I try to make up for the dorky, no-presents, no-cards, falls-on-a-Wednesday anniversary we’re having.

The 15 Most Amazing Things About Our Kick-Ass Marriage (in no particular order):

1)   We laugh all the time. Lots of people say this, but anyone who’s spent time with us knows that we make most couples look like Sad Clowns. We generally find each other hilarious, plus we’ve got almost two decades of inside jokes that make regular appearances in our conversations. When we first got married, I couldn’t even fold laundry in a normal amount of time, because he’d keep me paralyzed by laughter with his sock puppet theater. And even in the days leading up to my hospitalization for severe depression last summer, he could still make me laugh. People say that communication, or honesty, or some other thing is the key to a long, healthy marriage. I say, laughter tops them all.

2)   We have almost exactly the same taste in music and TV. Our Venn diagram of tastes is virtually concentric. I cannot overstate how much this makes life better, in a million little ways: radio on car trips, DVR management, where to spend our limited entertainment resources. Millions of little fights are averted. Peace reigns across the land. And for the stuff one likes and the other doesn’t, he goes to sleep later than I do, and I have occasional stretches of insomnia.

3)   We are equally matched for geekiness. It’s not the same geekiness, though we have many happy overlaps. And, like most geeks, we’re genuinely happy for the joy each of us finds in our geek wallows, and impressed at the skills the other displays in those territories.

4)   We really like each others’ families. Much like #2, it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it sure does make life better in a lot of little ways, and we never take it for granted how lucky we are that we picked up good people for family by marriage. We hear about people who have to suffer through holidays and vacations and visits for the sake of grandkids, and just shudder and thank our stars. The only thing we’d change if we could is how often we see them. Florida is too far, and the distance to New Zealand is downright intolerable.

5)   We still find each other attractive. This is totally not a given. I can’t fit in my wedding dress, not by a long shot, and he’s neurotic about going white. He doesn’t get that I’m surprisingly enjoying the whole Reed Richards thing he’s got going, and I’m completely freaking mystified by his tolerance for the extra volume of wife he’s acquired over the years. Now, if we could just find the time to do something about it, we’d be golden.

6)   He weathers my crazy with amazing aplomb. And there ought to be a constantly changing meteorological map showing the patterns of freak rising and falling in my brain posted somewhere to give the guy a fighting change. But no. He just rolls with it, and makes the crooked places straight, the rough places smooth.

7)   We are each other’s best advocate. Neither of us has any skill for personal horn-tooting, but we are perfectly excellent at bragging on the other one. In fact, I find it to be great fun to go around and tell people at game conventions how outstanding he is, and why they should be paying attention to every word that drops from his lips. He can be mortified later when I tell him the names of people I talked to; I don’t know them from Adam, but he does, and now they know he’s awesome.

8)   We don’t fight. I’m sure there are therapists out there who would have a field day with this and #7 put together, but there it is: we just don’t fight. Neither of us like conflict, we’d rather put the other one first, and it’s really easy to make the other one happy. I hear some people like the making-up part, but I rather like the not-needing-to part, myself.

9)   We are an awesome parenting team. Heavens know, there’s absolutely no way either of us could survive it solo for very long. We tag in and out of the parenting cage match like we’ve been doing this for a million years — it’s honestly the one thing I think we’re best at. He’s patient when I’m bombastic, he talks things through with them after I have to lay down the hard line, he lets me take the lead on the skills that I feel like I’ve got to offer our kids.

10)   He fixes my messes. I’m a goob about computer things, and I run out of energy at weird times, and there are chores that are hard for me with my non-cooperative body. He saves me, routinely and without complaint, even when I get whiny about it.

11)   He would rather be at home. Guys say, “Oh, I’m such a homebody. I love my family. Blah blah blah,” but if work gives them an excuse to fly out to a different time zone and play games and drink and BS with friends, most of them are really glad to be there. Not Cam. He’s talking about home, thinking about home, wishing he were home. It’s kind of pathetic, really. But when the boys are crying and screaming, “We hate you! We miss Daddy!” and I’m crying and screaming, “I hate you too! I miss Daddy too!” at least we know he wishes he were with us as much as we do.

12)   We’re adventurous together. It’s a function of trust, I guess — we know we’re not out to screw each other over. If I ask him to try some weird new ethnic food, he’ll give it a go. If he thinks I’ll like a book or movie, I’ll try it out, even if I end up throwing it across the room. Sometimes I have to drag him places, and he always sounds so surprised when he has a good time, but he lets me drag him, and that’s the point.

13)   We value the same things: love, friendship, creativity, knowledge, justice, honesty, compassion, kindness, humor, perseverance, hard work, steadfastness. That’s guided almost all the decisions we’ve made together, and it’s how we can be happy together, even though our income isn’t commensurate with the work we put in.

14)   We are living our vows, every single day. You know that “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health” in every wedding service? I didn’t expect that to go into effect quite so literally, quite so immediately for the poor guy. 10 days before our wedding, I got hit by a woman who ran a red light. Nothing major, we thought, but it’s likely that the soft tissue damage from that accident precipitated the fibromyalgia with which I was diagnosed in 1999. So many times, I’ve told him that, if he wanted out because I wasn’t the person he’d signed on with, I couldn’t possibly blame him. But he says he’s in it for the long haul, more fool him. And I’m so very grateful.

15)   We are meant to be. Hang on a sec, I just threw up a little. But seriously, what are the odds? Boy in New Zealand meets girl in Kansas on the Internet through an online roleplaying game that each just happened to hear about through some convoluted channel or other. They fall in love. Just a few years earlier, the whole astronomically unlikely story becomes impossible. Just a few years later, the technology’s so different, who knows how it works out.

I don’t buy lottery tickets, or pray on airplanes, or rush for cover in bad weather. I’ve already had my one in a billion. He put a ring on my finger, 15 years ago today.

And this is just the start.

My Big Fat Geek Wedding

It’s my 15th wedding anniversary this Wednesday, October 5th. And there are many other things I want to write about my amazing partner in the sublime and ridiculous adventure we’ve undertaken together. But before I get to that, it’s worth laying down a little groundwork.

Fortunately, I’ve already done this — rather eloquently, in fact, if I do say so myself. This essay was first published in the August 2010 issue of RPGirl zine, but I thought I’d repost it here as well, for all those who haven’t enjoyed that esteemed publication. This is the astronomically unlikely, stranger-than-fiction story of how Cam and I ended up together. Enjoy!

* * * * *

I met my husband online in 1993. Back then, Internet marriages were still the stuff of The Jerry Springer Show; they were viewed by the general public with about as much trust as prison pen pal marriages. But they were startin to happen more often, and while “We met online” resulted in universal gasps and exclamations of disbelief and lurid curiosity, the real secret behind our marriage wasn’t where we met — it was how. You see, my husband and I met through an online RPG.

Before RPG meant “Rocket Propelled Grenade” to the majority of Americans, it was better known to gamers by a different set — an altogether more contaminated set — of initials: D&D. And if couples formed on the Internet were viewed with the expectation of imminent failure, well, couples formed through the unholy bonds of D&D were viewed as if they’d joined the Heaven’s Gate death-pact cult.

Only gamers really understood that D&D wasn’t the only RPG out there, but even gamers didn’t quite believe that women were in the gaming community to stay. Gamer guys expected women to date at least one of the party, in and out of character; if they weren’t willing, then they could play a guy or bring food. To gamer girls, online RPGs, which were still entirely text-based, represented a chance to play without wondering where a guy’s eyes were during each scene — wondering where his hands were would come later, but could at least be ignored, except for the typos. Though many women still felt they needed to play male characters online to be taken seriously (while many men chose to play female characters, willing to be taken in any way they could), good scene-writing was respected online, and women (not shockingly) wrote women’s parts with remarkable insight. Gamer girls were starving for respect, and provided they could write passably well, they found that respect in the nascent online gaming world.

Most of the women in online RPGs came across the games as part of their experience in the computer world — many of them were already programmers or employed in the Internet industry as technicians or support personnel. As such, I was the odd bird — I was persuaded by my then-boyfriend to create a character on AmberMUSH because I’d enjoyed the novels by Roger Zelazny, on which the game was based. I had absolutely no computer skills beyond a 100 wpm typing speed and good word-processing abililties, established by my busy schedule as a French and journalism double major. Neither of us had a computer of our own, so if I wanted to spend time with him after he began playing, it would have to be at one of the computer labs on campus; and if I wanted not to be bored, then I’d better have a character of my own.

Within a year, I’d established myself both in character — a six-foot warrior woman with a pet lion, shamelessly ripped off from a Mercedes Lackey character I admired — and in the online gaming community, which shared a parallel out-of-character site called TooMUSH, with only the few they deemed decent and “real” enough to call friends. Among the TooMUSH family, I was the newbie. There I met geniuses who coded the first online RPGs based on their love of RL (“real life”) gaming; many are now highly respected faculty, independent consultants, supervisors, and engineers. There I also met gaming devotees who introduced me to systems and worlds that fundamentally changed my idea of play. There I met virtuosos who dazzled me with their writing ability in scenes I’ll never forget; several are now New York Times Bestselling authors [NB: The NYT just recently published an article on AmberMUSH as the successful incubator for so many successful writers, including dearest friends and my own Darling Husband; it’s well worth the read.]

Me, I was just happy to have been entrusted with one of AmberMUSH’s “features,” the characters from the books which were handed out only by application to the board of “wizards” who were combination coders/referees/justices of the peace. I had applied for and won control of one Julia Barnes, a character in the second quartet of books in Zelazny’s series, a UC Berkeley computer engineering designer and up-and-coming sorceress. To her, computer coding was the effort to impose her will over an environment through the skillful application of elegant and efficient orders; sorcery was the same thing, just on a more challenging and satisfying scale. In the books, she meets Merlin, prince of Amber, narrator of the second series  and son of Corwin, prince of Amber and narrator of the first series. He shows her a good time and the secrets of the universe. While not of Amber blood, and therefore not eligible to “walk the Pattern” and gain control over “shadows,” reflections of the infinitely varied images of Amber, the ultimate Order, or Chaos, the ultimate Disorder, Julia gained and maintained control of a “Broken Pattern,” one of the flawed reflections of the original Pattern of Amber.

It was through this in-game prop, and through one of those up-and-coming authors (the guy with his picture in that NYT article. Yes, him.), that I met my husband. He’d started with an “unblooded” character and wanted access to greater powers and, probably more importantly to him, access to better players and better scenes. Since feature characters were screened, there was a greater, though not perfect, chance of higher quality play, and I certainly took my obligations to give access to the powers I controlled — the Broken Pattern and my online availability — very seriously. When my friend recommended this new player to me, I arranged to have my character “bump into” his at the game’s common watering-hole/fight-starter. As our characters hit it off, we started talking behind the scenes, and before long, he’d made a good enough impression on enough of the influential players to merit an invite to TooMUSH.

Our biggest obstacle turned out to be the time difference. You see, I lived in Kansas; he lived in Auckland, New Zealand. A 19-hour gap is decidedly awkward to schedule around. But as my hours in the computer lab had grown exponentially as I acquired more characters to play and more friends to visit with, and he had little care for a minor thing like sleep, we managed to meet in and out of character with surprising frequency. Our online scenes coincided with the mutually simultaneous meltdown of our offline relationships, and we provided each other with sympathy and distraction. One summer evening, he confided to me that he had developed romantic feelings for one of the women he knew online. Understanding yet totally failing to understand, I asked, “Is it Adrienne’s player?” His blunt response still strikes me as if I’d heard it, not read it: “No. It’s you.”

This revelation came only a month before my departure for a year of study abroad in France. I resisted his appeals to try a long-distance relationship, though we began exchanging the kind of care packages essential to an online romance in the ’90s: letters, photographs, graphic novels, and mix-tapes. On the one hand, I felt deeply for him, and my own laptop and a 12-hour time difference greased the skids for communication. On the other hand, the Telecoms of France and New Zealand would end up costing us the equivalent of a family-sized car.

But love won out, and when he flew to the UK to meet me for the first time in person, it was with an engagement ring and a plan. The plan, to propose at midnight on New Year’s Eve at a Scottish castle, was ultimately wrecked; it was finally in flannel pajamas in an Aberdeen B&B where he popped the question. And I insisted on working out the finer points of “where” and “how” before I would even open the ring box. But obviously, I said yes.

“Where” ended up being Lawrence, Kansas, in October 1996; “how” was thanks to my mom and a K-1 visa — and with a surprising number of our Amber/TooMUSH friends in attendance. If I’m not mistaken, we were one of the first AmberMUSH-originating couples to marry, but we certainly weren’t the last. And if we wanted to show our two sons where we met, we’d have to do something unusual: look up an IP address. But first we’d have to explain to them about roleplaying games.

Oct 2, 2011 - Physical Ed    2 Comments

Why I Have Pink Hair

There’s a girl in my building who’s completely baffled by my hair.

“So, your hair’s pink now,” she says.

“Yup,” I reply happily.

“But before that, it was blonde for a little while,” she says, frowning.

“Uh-huh. I bleached it so the pink would be brighter,” I explain.

“Right. But before that, you just had pink streaks,” she says, growing uncertain.

“Yup,” I confirm.

“And before *that*, it was sort of red,” she says, her voice becoming more faint with each color on the list.

“Yup. I like red too.”

“But your real color is sort of brown.”

“Yeah, but it hasn’t been that in the longest time,” I say, smiling and wrinkling my nose.

“But…” she trails off into silence for a moment, before resuming, “… *why*?”

“Honey, my hair exists to amuse me. So it all goes horribly wrong. So what? It grows. I’ll get over it.”

To this, she can say nothing at all.

I’ve been doing strange things to my appearance since I was in high school. By my sophomore year, I’d been neatly enfolded into the clique known as The Squids, so called for the ever-so-’80s practice of shaving off all but a small, tangly, black-dyed mop a la The Cure/Siouxie and the Banshees. The apocryphal story goes that someone said it looked like dead squids on their heads. In the way of all good insults, we eventually reclaimed it as our own moniker, so The Squids we were.

The Squids were the punks, the skaters, the music geeks, the drama club, the yearbook kids, and the weirdos. We were also the intelligentsia. When the school administration threatened some of the guys with suspension if they didn’t take off the cannibalized t-shirt sleeves they wore as headbands, we responded by threatening to sue them under Title IX for gender discrimination, since girls were free to wear the very same headbands with no restrictions. We may have been weirdos, but we were smart weirdos not to be messed with.

Over the years, my hair’s been almost every color in the Crayola box. Ironically, the only color I’ve never dyed it is black, the color of choice for teenage rebels and college hipsters everywhere. It always seemed too (get this) extreme. A nice grass green suited me quite nicely, but bright magenta pink seems to be my true element. A friend who helped me attain that hue when my hair was down to my waist several years back once said, “I’d have never believed it if someone had told me, but you actually make me think pink is your natural hair color.”

And it makes me happy, which is the whole point. That’s not easy to accomplish, appearance-wise, these days. The most common comment by adults is, “You’re so brave! I could never do something so drastic!” But when chronic pain keeps me from transforming my body with exercise, and the medications that keep that pain from being even worse keep the very limited diet I stick to from making any difference either, you take your drastic effects where you can find them.

I spend so many minutes of each day cursing almost every quadrant of my body for non-cooperation. It really adds up. The 20 minutes in the morning it takes for the pain meds to kick in so I can start moving; the 20 it takes to find clothes that fit and don’t make me feel like a cow; the 15-minute bargains I make and renew again and again to stretch the time between breaks and naps and more pain meds; the 20- and 30-minute pieces I’m having to scare up for walks and meditation as part of the pain management curriculum I’m in. And then there are the unscheduled, unmeasured moments of despair, when the folds and bulges and sags and curves, and the energy and range of motion and lift capacity and standing strength, don’t match the person you remember being, and you get sucked down until all you can do is sit on the side of your bed, in your bra and panties, and be tired and worry and cry.

So if dyeing my hair pink, or whatever color strikes my fancy, every few months costs $20 and 2 hours, and confuses my kids’ school principal and the girl in my building, but lifts my heart when I pull it back in a rushed ponytail in the morning? It’s just paid for itself.

And every kid who calls down from the top of the monkey bars as I walk across the playground, “Mrs. Banks! Cool hairdo!”?

That’s pure profit.