Sunday, July 5, 2015

Broken Bear Blues: The Guilt

My three year old daughter broke her arm four days ago. It's been such an exhausting, joy-sucking crisis - all the panic, helplessness and sleep deprivation associated with her birth, minus the radiance of a brand new life. I have lots of feelings and a few thoughts as we forge through her healing process, so I've decided to rekindle my relationship with this digital space. Hey, Rare Oats - haven't seen you in a spell.

Since I blog more for the therapeutic benefits and less for the chance to sharpen my storytelling skills, I'm gonna skip over the series of events and go straight to the guilt. Oh, the guilt. I'm a mom, who was brought up Catholic, so this feeling is nothing new. But, man, how it gnaws at me (way worse than usual). The accident happened on my watch. I should have been more careful, but I was too focused on placating her while I worked on something else. We'd been bickering. I didn't know how much worse things were about to get. And on day two of her wearing this enormous, cumbersome cast, I realized I'd been tying the sling wrong and her back was starting to hunch. In quiet moments, my mind wanders back and forth between these incidents of deep regret, as if constantly revisiting them will somehow allow me to push that elusive "rewind" button.

But then there's another, unexpected kind of guilt. As we move away from the trauma and adjust our daily lives to my kid's recuperation, it means a lot to know that other people are thinking about us. I feel so humbled by my loved ones' thoughtful words, because I know I haven't always been there for them when they were experiencing strife. It wasn't that I didn't care or have them in my thoughts. More likely, it was that I couldn't think of something more original to say than, "I'm so sorry this is happening," and decided it just wasn't worth saying. But if you let your stupid ego keep you from showing people how you feel about their situation, they're never going to know. The truth is that I'm a very emotional person, so much that I've learned to temper my expression for fear of freaking out the people I like. That reserve doesn't help when it's time to comfort others, and then I wind up behaving like some common dude.*

So to anyone who thought I just didn't give a shit when you were suffering, I'm really sorry. And deepest apologies to my sweet girl, who is definitely not allowed to see all my feelings until we're well past this chapter. For now, I must maintain a semblance of emotional stability. By the time you're old enough to read and comprehend this essay, I'll be ready for you to know just how I awful I feel.

*No offense to the guys in my life who've been so kind - thank you.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

You'd never know it from my inactivity here, but I've been extremely busy with multiple creative projects this summer. Commence shameless self-promotion!

I wrote a fun feature for TV blog What Else is On ABC's Nashville went on summer hiatus and I didn't have any weekly writing assignments, until my editor came up with this clever idea. For Binge or Purge, I binge-watched and reviewed several TV shows from the 1980s and 90s, all for the purpose of telling you whether they're worth viewing now. My picks included 21 Jump Street, The Young Ones, A.L.F., Sports NightBeverly Hills 90210 season 1, Miami Vice and The X-Files (broken down into three installments). If you ever loved these programs or care to watch one now, please give my reviews a read. All shows are streaming on Netflix or Hulu Plus, and most hold up quite well.

My friends and I started a podcast Hayley Thompson and Saladin Ahmed (old friends who are parents of four year old twins) kindly invited me to be part of this podcast in which we review  children's media. In episode 1 of Can We Watch it Again, we discuss Disney's 1973 animated version of Robin Hood. It's a fun project for several reasons, not the least of which is that I get to do something with all these opinions about my kid's entertainment (stuff I would never watch if I weren't a mom). Exchanging opinions with two of my favorite pop culture nerds makes it even better. I hope the conversation is as enjoyable to you. Episode 2 coming soon!

p.s. I also appeared on Hayley's other podcast, Stylemother. In that episode, we chatted about summer TV shows. This one's special to me because we spent a weird amount of time discussing El Debarge and Kenny Loggins.

Another friend and I started a joint blog At 400 Words, my pal Andrew Stout and I take turns writing short essays on random subjects. Our first two installments include Meat and Parliament. This project appeals to my love of a fine order/chaos blend - I dig the parameters and deadlines but also love how the prompts send me in unexpected creative directions. Best of all, the finished product is 400 words or less. If my wordier stuff scares you (I understand), you may find these bite size portions more digestible. Other bonus - Andrew is a great writer but with a very different voice. It'll be fun to see how each of us respond to a given topic. We publish every Wednesday afternoon.

I started yet another blog and "came out" This one's called Remember the Abortion Episode? It's another pop culture review, with a twist. Isn't it strange that with the preponderance of surprise pregnancies on American TV shows, hardly any of those women characters even talk about having an abortion? In reality, 3 out of 10 American women have an abortion at some point in their life. Clearly we have a taboo. On this blog, I review and rate those rare TV episodes that deal explicitly with abortion, for better or worse. My interest in this subject, as well as my assessment, is largely based on my personal experience of having had an abortion when I was 22 years old. Just to be perfectly clear: I have never once regretted that decision.

I was anxious about publishing this blog at first. Opening myself to other people's judgement frightens me. But that discomfort is nothing compared to my concern for American women's reproductive rights. For fifteen years, I've held tight to my experience for fear of being shamed or misunderstood, all the while knowing it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. And as I sat silent, I've watched our access to abortion dwindle. While I would never pressure any individual woman to discuss her personal medical history, I can't help feeling that those of us who stand by our abortions need to start talking about that choice like the normal, reasonable, often-complex yet everyday decision it is.

I'm doing just that, in a couple ways. I've wrote a memoir piece about my experience, which I intend to publish later*. In the meantime, I decided to do that "be the change you wanna see" thing and commence Abortion Real Talk via this new blog. Most people who know me didn't know about my abortion until I started publishing RtAE in July. You might say, "That's a weird way to tell everyone," and I'd say, "Yeah, I guess that's true." But I'm a pretty weird lady and I contend that nothing I've done - either by having an abortion or writing about it - is wrong. Plus, I think this blog is insightful and funny.

My deepest gratitude to all who've been supportive of RtAE in any way - it means a lot. Compelled as I am to openly discuss my experience with abortion, it's an intimidating project. I haven't received any vitriol from haters, mainly because I'm not widely read. It will certainly happen if I ever am. The silence from others - especially those of my usual readers who I'd assumed to be pro-choice - is its own weirdness, but I try to not read too much into that. Many folks who are fine with discussing abortion in the abstract turn awkward when it gets personal. I just have this gut feeling that making it personal is the key to our liberation. If we all knew how many of our women friends and family members have had abortions, maybe we wouldn't be so awkward about it.

I publish this blog every other week, hopefully more often in the near future.** I'll keep you posted.

...and that's why I haven't posted anything here at Rare Oats since May. Maybe we're nearing the point when I wrap up this blog for good. But I still have a few other things to say that don't fit anywhere else, so I'll be back. It's funny to think that just over a year ago, this was the only creative project on the docket. Being busy as hell feels great.

*Still in the reading-and-editing phase, but I am determined

**I'd love to bring other writers in. If you've had an abortion, love talking TV, have a way with words and can keep it under 500, message me.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Why I Don't Judge People Who Buy Cheetos with Food Stamps

I made a recent and rare foray into online debate with complete strangers. The topic was welfare. By the time one of the participants inferred that I am a wealthy, clueless and hysterical liberal who knows nothing about how "these people" really are, I recognized the innate pointlessness of bickering with someone whose world view is fundamentally different from mine. Apparently, this gentleman gets really mad at welfare recipients who squander their limited, partially tax-funded resources on unhealthy food, booze, cigarettes, and expensive gadgets. I, on other hand, do not get mad. 

My lack of bitterness isn't because I don't pay taxes or care how small my annual contribution is*. Nor do I naively assume that only a few "bad apples" make costly choices while all the other "good" poor people live lives of irreproachable virtue. To me, getting mad about poor people spending money imprudently is like getting mad that shit floats downstream. Poverty is full of expensive traps and temptations that keep you broke. I know because I made lots of unfortunate financial decisions when I was poor - borrowing money at bad rates without a considered repayment plan, always choosing short-term cheap over long-term affordable, avoiding my debt out of shame, and indulging in stress-dulling creature comforts. Even when I was earning decent money in my late twenties, I had acquired so many debts and bad habits that I remained perennially broke. I'd probably still be that way, but I got really lucky around age 30 and stumbled into some opportunities to learn thrift and economy.

- First, I hitched myself to a guy who's good with money. Dan is especially talented at managing debt. (If he were the author, this is where he'd insert a Jew joke, because he's Jewish and thinks that's funny.) He convinced me to face my debt head on and not let it get worse.

- Shortly after we got married, I took a personal finance class offered free-of-charge by my employer. It literally changed my life. They taught me how to make a sensible budget and stick to it. Within days, Dan and I opened a savings account. I immediately began tracking my everyday spending, a habit I've kept up fairly consistently for the past six years. I don't need to be as obsessive about bookkeeping now because we're more financially stable. But that initial determination to live well within my means and pay down debt saved me during those slim years when Dan was finishing grad school.  

- For years, I'd been visiting a therapist who charged sliding scale rates for low income patients - he helped me make lots of smart choices that paved the way for good fortune (like snagging Dan). When I told him about my frugal fever, he recommended Amy Dacyczyn's Complete Tightwad Gazette. I checked out a copy from the public library and made it my bible. Especially now that I'm the house boss, I draw upon its lessons every day. Back then, it taught me to love canned tuna, bulk savings, and nylon net onion bags repurposed as scrub brushes. My favorite tip these days is keeping my house tidy and pleasant so I don't feel the need to go somewhere else and spend money. Even though I don't earn wages for my housework, my labor definitely transfers into money saved and that's pretty damned satisfying, too. 

If those three things hadn't happened, I'd probably still be eating takeout most nights a week, paying ATM fees, smoking a pack a day, buying toilet paper and cleaning supplies at the gas station, and wondering how my paycheck disappears so fast. I'll give myself some credit - for finding a clever mate, attending the optional finance class, reading the book, following the lessons. Conscious change requires initiative. But the fact remains I had to learn thrift and those learning opportunities came to me by luck. NOTE: Learning this stuff from your parents also qualifies as damned good luck.

If seeing a welfare recipient with a fancy cell phone makes your blood boil, probably none of this has moved you. After all, we're just talking about our feelings, right? That's what irks me about most online political arguments I see. Almost everyone is just spouting off their emotions, based on whatever anecdotal information they've absorbed. Few of us are arguing on the basis of research or data. We get excited when we happen across a more informed argument that supports our strong feelings, so we can point to that and say, "See!" All I can say for myself is that the anecdotes I've shared here come only from my personal experience. I suspect my story is relatable to some, but I don't venture to guess how life is for any other individual. So if your knowledge of "these people" is limited to what you've heard from others or what you've seen in a grocery store line, I'm not interested in your point of view. I'm more curious how you became a person who isn't poor or dependent. You can tell me all about that.

It's a matter of perspective. My anger is a limited resource and way more of my tax money pays for endless war, which bothers me more.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Psychedelic Stuff My Kid Has Said to Me

I eat the sunshine.

The cow is jumping on the milk.

I see the baby piggies in the wall.

Clap your hands, clap your feet, clap your armpits!

I have a sticker on my giant poop.

Is that the number Y?

(pointing at childproof outlet covers) Those are the questions. 

See the orange juice door?

I put my mouth in my hair.

That's the moon in the flower. That's the flower moon in the flower.

I'm washing the water.

The sky! Up and grey and tall.

I wanna go see Mama, Mama.

You're my bear of the sun.

Bernadette can be a pizza.

That shadow is exactly.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Greedy for Greener Leaves

It was 70+ degree and sunny for a week, then mild and rainy on my birthday (not unwelcome - it is April, after all). On Tuesday, the temperature plummeted in the wake of a pelleting rain, and so did my mood. Premenstrual syndrome conspired with post birthday blues to burgle every remaining morsel of joy I'd felt just one day prior. But mostly it was the shitty cold weather's fault.

I used to think the most perfect time of year is that series of spring days when all the chartreuse trees have blossomed and bloomed to some degree but no single leaf is yet full grown. The lilacs and tulips come with their hard, shellacked hues of purple, yellow, and cranberry-orange. The fragile newborn flora grow more resilient and sprightly. The fauna turn manic. Birds perform their wall of sound, dawn and twilight symphonies. Bunnies emerge. Humans dine al fresco and fornicate.

That was last week, and I loved up every one of those days as much as I could. When I eyed Tuesday's forecast, part of me felt wistful knowing this perfection would all pass too soon. But another part of me just shrugged and wondered, "When's the real show gonna start?"

This is the real show - lush, dewy leaves and grass sizzling in the hot sun. Fences festooned with morning glories. The inevitable kudzu carpets rolling over the mountainside. Stepping out of my air-conditioned house into a honeysuckle scented sauna. Roses and rosemary. The flavor of meat cooked outdoors, over smoke. Bare skin on slow moving limbs. Never shivering. Losing my lip balm to the medicine chest until November.

It seems my preferred environ is densely floral and humid. Who knew? I always hated hot sticky days in Michigan, but that's probably because I usually didn't have central air conditioning. I may have once loved springtime most, but it was harder earned back then. Without a dramatic thaw, the chartreuse week just isn't as big a deal. It rather intensifies my rainforest cravings, because air just can't get muggy enough on mere baby leaf fuel. It's the succulent vegetation that brings the sultry breezes.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Reasonable Cost of Being Authentic

Big surprise - I don't care for bridal or baby showers. In addition to the dopey games and the general awkwardness of daylight gatherings with strangers, I find the public unwrapping of presents very strange. I remember kvetching about this to my friend R. "Wouldn't it be better if we all just gave each other cash and skipped that part? The last way I wanna spend a weekend afternoon is watching someone else tear into a bunch of kitchenware they'll never use or clothes their kid will outgrow in a week. That isn't my idea of fun."

"Yeah," she agreed. "But you gotta play the part, right? I mean, you just have to sit there, ooh-ing and aah-ing over the gifts."

My sense of indignation flared and I replied, "No, I don't. I'll just stare off into space and think about something else."

R gave me a funny look. And since she's older and teaches psychology, I take her funny looks to heart. She never revealed what that facial expression meant, but I arrived at this conclusion a couple days later - when it comes to showers, I can either play the part of an excited, envious girlfriend and bitch about it after the fact, or I can zone out in the back of the room and not whine about having to be there. But I can't have it both ways. That's double-dipping.

I've come to a similar conclusion about being a social creature in Chattanooga. My kind is quite weird in this town, where sarcastic, introverted, over-thinking, lefty, atheist, hippie chicks with midwestern accents are rare. I certainly don't wish to live in a place where everyone is just like me because that would be creepy and boring. And it isn't as if all the other people in Chattanooga are exactly like each other. I'm grateful for that human variety because people-watching will never be dull. But it is hard to find others with whom I can relate and sometimes my loneliness sours.

That's when I begin resenting all the places where I don't fit in, which is just about everywhere. I notice it most when I'm out to eat - ugh, like that meal at the new farm-to-table cafe, where the hipster servers try too hard at looking cool and not enough at doing their jobs well. "Yes, my lunch was scrumptious, but that guy with the handlebar mustache who took twenty minutes to brew my coffee? And the smug, yuppie clientele? Ick, I may never go back." Then I remember my last birthday brunch, at the all-you-can-eat fried chicken place on the edge of town. I'd waited months for that down home feast. At the end of my meal, the polite, standoffish, middle aged waitress asked me where I'm from. "Just a couple miles down the road," I said, but her quizzical face told me exactly what she was thinking - "No, where are you really from?" 

Okay, the scene isn't usually that alienating, but I do so often feel self conscious about my clothing and manner when I'm out in society. I figure that's apt to remain the case so long as I choose to be myself. And since I'm stubborn and lazy and don't want to style my hair or go to church, I've learned to accept that and expect nothing more. That's the cost of being myself in this mostly conservative Bible Belt city. When I start to feel lonely or uncomfortable, I stave off grumpiness by appreciating my loner superpowers - the ability to roam solo in a social setting, the capacity to amuse myself without attention from others. And though I'm shy, I can engage in surface-level, polite banter. The locals may not be friendly enough to overcome my deep reserve (and I know that's all on me), but they are almost unfailingly civil. I could certainly do far worse in the many other parts of this country where I don't click.

In the early 1990s, I was part of a rapidly shrinking white student population at a largely Arab/Muslim high school. I was also a morbid, pale, extremely serious alternachick, so there was no chance of my being normal there. Getting used to being a freak took a couple years, but overall it was an invaluable experience. Being forced to spend long hours with very different people made me more tolerant, compassionate and open-minded. Those lessons probably outstripped the whole of my sub-par public education. In fact, racial and class integration is one of my top concerns as I explore my daughter's education options; I've felt very strongly about this since long before I became a mom. So it's funny that I wound up in this place where I find myself so weird again. Again, learning to feel secure in my freakiness is an everyday challenge, but I feel like this experience may be just as good for me in the long run. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

In Honor of the Friends I Didn't Help

Ever since I became a parent, I often think about two childhood friends whom I believe were molested by their fathers. In both cases, obvious signs flashed before my young eyes, but I was either too naive or distracted at the time to notice. Contemplating those horrors now invites a tidal wave of feelings - anger, sadness, frustration, guilt. Maybe I'm no more culpable than any other person in my friends' lives who did nothing to help them. As far as I know, the crimes never came to light, just as we never discussed them at the time. But you recognize certain patterns as you get older. You meet new friends and listen to their stories. You gradually discover that incest and pedophilia are much wider-spread blights than any child wants to know. 

This has been extra heavy on my mind in light of Dylan Farrow's open letter about her estranged father (and accused molester) Woody Allen. Without speaking about them specifically, I will make the following points, beginning with the most obvious -

- People who want to sexually assault children need to be kept away from children. It is our social responsibility to sequester predators from our young.

- Abusers tend to have been abused. It us our social responsibility to stem the cycle of sexual violence by helping victims deal with their trauma and holding perpetrators responsible.

- None of this works if we ignore symptoms, shame victims who speak up, or otherwise close our eyes and pray it isn't true. 

- It especially doesn't work when we are distracted by a predator's clout, money or prestige. Consider Jimmy Savile, the late English celebrity who is now accused of raping dozens of kids. Through his career and philanthropic work, he positioned himself in such a way that he had easy access to children. So did Jerry Sandusky. These two men were able to abuse many, many young people because they had the power and privilege to do so. Preventing such predators from inflicting that level of damage requires greater vigilance, not less. 

I'm not telling you how to feel about Woody Allen as an individual or artist, because I don't think that matters. But your gut reaction to Farrow's accusation does. If it was something like, "Say it isn't so!" followed by a firm resolve to not believe it, then you aren't ready for your social responsibilities. I implore you to make yourself more ready. Because after all, Woody's just some famous guy you don't even know. How will you react when the alleged predator is someone you do know?