Fear of an Blank Parent

Because it is my highest aspiration to be a troublemaker, I’m setting out today to problematize something we all take for granted. I want to argue that the gendering of parenthood does very little good, and no small amount of harm.

This post springboards off posts by Amanda Valentine and me about the media portrayals of men and fathers as bumbling, hapless idiots who are as likely to diaper the Thanksgiving turkey and put the baby in the oven as watch the football game afterward. It also relates directly to the historic cases about same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court this week.

My point is very simple: there is very little difference between the duties my husband and I assume with regard to our children. And since the earliest days–specifically, since I stopped breastfeeding them–the differences in parenting caused by our genders have been vanishingly small.

As parents, we make sure they wash, dress, eat reasonably well (at least over the course of a week, if not each and every day). We send them to school, help with homework, take the inevitable phone calls that come from sending two active, intelligent boys to school every day. We monitor their media, we break up arguments, we cause arguments, and at the end of the day, we tuck them in at night with kisses and dire warnings against getting out of bed again for anything short of a fire.

Absolutely none of these things, or the billion other duties and blessings that comprise parenthood, depend on our biology.

The division of labor that takes place between modern co-parents comes from the frank assessment of one another’s particular strengths and struggles. I crack the whip over homework and science fair projects because I am an educator, not because I am a woman. My Darling Husband does more of the day-to-day housework because I am disabled, not because he is a man. Nor does this indicate I am a failure as a wife and mother, or that he is a weakened, hen-pecked husband and father. Someday, our boys will require The Talk (or to be more correct, The Talks); I honestly have no idea who’s going to give it. I hear the DH has a leg up on me in the visual aids department.

In one of the early hearings on the same-sex marriage bill currently under consideration here in Minnesota, the measure’s opponents brought out an 11-year-old girl to testify against the idea of marriage equality. (You may have also seen her on the steps of the Supreme Court this week; she’s one of their star witnesses right now.) She told the legislators that she loved her mommy and daddy, but that under this bill, some children wouldn’t have a mommy or a daddy, but two of one. “Which parent do I not need, my mom or my dad?” she asked the committee.

And I finally understood why fighting same-sex marriage matters so much to many of its fiercest opponents.

In their world, mothers and fathers do different things for the children. Fathers can’t do mothering, and mothers can’t do fathering. If a single mom or a pair of dads raises a child, there is work being left undone, and the child can’t help but suffer for it. How could anyone possibly be in favor of only half an upbringing?

The gendering of parenthood not only diminishes the power of what parents of both sexes do for their children everyday, but it also confuses the living heck out of some people. When you see signs decrying the erosion of “traditional marriage,” they’re not just talking about divorce and same-sex couples–they mean me and my oh-so-traditional marriage, too.

Even though I’m married to a spouse of the opposite gender, we’re destroying traditional marriage too, by sharing the work–the hardships, the effort, the joys, the rewards–of creating a new family. We’re also undermining the institution by teaching our children (made in the traditional “When a mommy and a daddy love each other very much…” biological way) that moms and dads cook dinner, attend school conferences, travel for work, and tell them to turn off the iPod at bedtime. For the most part, we’re interchangeable.

And our evil scheme is clearly working. They accept their friends with two moms, or one mom, or a dad and a grandma without so much as a bat of the eye. If I had a dime for every time they called the wrong one of us “Mom” or “Dad,” we could afford a bigger apartment. To them, “Mom” and “Dad” are just names to help differentiate between whose attention they’re demanding. It’d probably be easier on us all if there were a random name for “Whichever of you can help me first with what I want.”

My sons are growing up healthy and happy with two loving parents. They’d be no less loved if only one of us were around, or if we were both the same gender, or no gender at all. That’s not how love works–it’s not a zero-sum game.

And when you think of it like that, it’s pretty hard to see two loving, married parents eroding anything about our future.

Un-fair-y Tales


FTF 2013 button text popThis post is part of the Fairytale Fortnight, organized by fellow blogger The Book Rat and A Backwards Story. It’s a super cool idea, and there’ll be posts all over the web for two whole weeks, so I hope you come back for more here, and search out other interesting observations and book reviews as a part of the event!


When I asked my sons about fairytales, they didn’t have much to say beyond, “We love them.” I wasn’t surprised–I’ve raised them on mythology and folklore of every kind since they were born. Fairy tales are an essential part of the narrative fabric we’ve woven around them for their whole lives.

I wasn’t surprised either that it’s the twisted modern retellings that particularly tickle their fancy. The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, The Frog Prince Continued…, and The Stinky Cheese Man are popular because of their humor as well as the subversive, topsy-turvy act of inverting classic story structures. Our boys are raised on satire like mother’s milk, so it’s natural that they’d prefer twisted tales to the straightforward ones.

When I asked if there were any lessons the fairytales taught them, though, both boys were at a bit of a loss. I mentioned how many parents of daughters worried that fairytales taught girls to wait for a man to solve their problems for them, and asked if that seemed right. (They’re quite the little feminists; of course they said it wasn’t right.)

But when I thought of the male characters in the revised fairytales of recent years that are designed to address that lack of feminine agency, I came up embarrassingly short of good lessons for boys. Current fairytale telling seems to operate on the idea that there’s a finite amount of power and smarts in the story, and if the women get more of it now, it has to happen at the expense of the men.

This certainly isn’t the only place in society that smart women are rising and smart men are falling in the media. My friend Amanda Valentine wrote a scathing post recently about how gendered entertainment and advertising–especially as it’s targeted at parents–does men an incredible disservice by portraying them all as bumbling idiots who shouldn’t be trusted with home or offspring.

Princess Fiona, Merida, and Rapunzel are smart, feisty, and entirely capable of their own liberation and defense in times of peril. Heroes, on the other hand, like Shrek, Merida’s father Fergus, and Flynn, the hero-rogue in Tangled, are to varying degrees incompetent, gullible, morally weak, and easily distracted from their goals, dependent on the women in their lives to keep them in line and out of trouble. The only male characters that go through real, multi-layered, character evolution in recent years are Beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Hiccup in How To Train Your Dragon. Jack in the recent Jack the Giant-Killer is a fairly humble live-action hero whose love for the princess, at the very least, does not make him stupid. Shrek does go through some evolution, but seems to stumble his way from lesson to lesson, and seems weakened and henpecked by the end of the series.

My boys love that these stories are full of adventure and derring-do, and they honestly don’t care too much who’s doing the swashing and the buckling. They’re just as in love with Merida as they were with Shrek. I’m proud of the fact that they don’t see much difference among heroes of different genders. They buck the convention that “you can get a girl to see a boys’ movie, but you can never, not ever, get a boy to watch a girls’ movie.”

But I wish there were room between the domineering, Johnny-Come-Latelys of Charles Perrault and classic Disney, and the updated, apologist buffoons that Hollywood is serving up to boys like mine. They don’t want their fairytales to undergo a gory reversal toward the truly grim versions of Grimm’s. My ten-year-old understood that once parents felt the need to educate their kids that the outside world was a scary, unpredictable place, but when asked if boys still need brutal fairytales to teach that lesson, he replied with a snort, “Are you kidding? All you have to do to learn that is watch the news, for gods’ sakes.”

That’s how I feel too as his mother–no kid growing up today needs fantasy violence to learn that the world is dangerous. Fantasy can be safer and more meaningfully inclusive of rich, complex, powerful characters of both genders (or *gasp* fluid genders!) doing fun, adventurous things in challenging situations. Maybe then, we’d both be satisfied at last with a Happily Ever After.

Mar 22, 2013 - Social Studies    4 Comments

Just Stop: Friday Night Lists

It’s been a bad week in the media for people sensitive to trigger issues. Rape, consent, racism, intolerance, and general lack of humanheartedness abound, and with them the traveling herds of trolls who flock to such ripe feeding grounds from their mountain bridges.

In my assumed role as a sherpa through the treacherous territory of social sensitivity and awareness of others’ boundaries, I’m offering this Friday Night List. If you feel a “but” coming on at the end of these sentences, do not say whatever you were about to–you’ll only end up making someone mad.


(No Buts About It.)

“I’m not a racist.”

“We can all agree that bullying is never okay.”

“I’m not trying to be insulting.”

“Rape is rape.”

“We shouldn’t make light of a serious crime.”

“That looks great.”

“I appreciate your hard work.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud.”

“No offense.”

“I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.”

“Hey, baby.”

“I’m sure this was your best effort.”

“You have a wonderful, energetic child.”

“It’s not my cup of tea.”

“I understand you’re strapped for cash.”

“That must be hard for you.”

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you.”

“I appreciate how busy you are.”

“I don’t want to cross any boundaries.”

“Hitler/Idi Amin/Chairman Mao/Darth Vader was a bad man.”

“You may not want to hear this.”

“I shouldn’t have to say this.”


Kids and Consent

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

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

And now he’s sitting in a jail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 18, 2013 - Domestic Engineering    3 Comments

From A Mother of Sons


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 17, 2013 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Relics of a Well-Spent Life

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

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

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

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

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

They couldn’t be more wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mar 13, 2013 - Physical Ed, Psychology    1 Comment

Darkness, My Old Friend

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

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

I wish it were unusual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Spring Isn’t Spring

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

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

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

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

Spring suffered a setback today.

Flurries fell and danced like dervishes

      in the parking lot.

Cold crept under my soles and

      froze my winter-pale toes.


Birch trees that, only seven days ago,

      seemed ready to move their magic

            above ground,

      now look tightly shuttered,

            their yellow-green hazy life still locked away.


This frigid season will visit a bit longer,

      and feels quite comfortably at home

though its hosts wish it long gone.



      waiting politely in the driveway

            for its turn in the guest room,

must wait.

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

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

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

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

Fix the Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 6, 2013 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Why Be An Activist?


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Because smiling while you protest makes the opposition nervous.

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


Because the halls of power belong to you.


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


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

Pride at Capitol

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

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

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

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

Because we all do better when we all do better.