Thursday, January 11, 2018

Insert Funny Title About Dying Fantasies Here


Radiology sent me a letter saying my right breast warranted a second look. 

My first thought was, Thank you

My second thought: Oh my God, I have cancer!

The letter came on Saturday. My follow-up appointment is not until Thursday, and this is only Tuesday.

I can think of nothing but the prospect of dying: 

Everyone who has ever felt a fond feeling for me will flock to my beside when they hear the news.

Even my ex-husband, who hasn't spoken to me in ten years, will probably send a large bouquet of red roses with a note: "Hope you're on the upswing soon." 

(He knows perfectly well there will be  no upswing.)

Those from whom I've been estranged will be stunned to learn of my imminent demise. They will visit or write or call to say that I had never been far from their thoughts. 

I have been an important person in their life. 

Despite whatever came between us all those years ago (who can even remember what it was?) they never forgot me for more than six or eight months at a stretch.

Dying has a certain appeal. If I were truly dying, I could throw a big party and everyone would have to show up. 

All of my loved ones, past and present, would gather together in a spirit of love and remembrance...of me!  

Then again, is it my duty to inform people who have deliberately opted out of my life that I am dying, and that this is their last chance to return to the fold?  

Dare I ask those people to journey back to me one last time--at the risk being told that I have been dead to them already for a very long time?  

That's not what a dying person needs to hear.

And how would I notify them?  Would it be like a birth announcement or an obituary? 

Notification of a change of address?  

I would order cards with nice calligraphy.

Greetings from Wisconsin!  I am sorry to tell you that I am dying. I would love to see you one more time, maybe two.  What does your schedule look like?  RSVP

Perhaps, instead of a party, I could expect a steady trickle of attention from a large field of acquaintances. 

Women from church would bring food. 

Cards would arrive, two or three a day, like Christmas. 

I will read the cards, and think to myself, Who are these people?

As my hour glass grows bottom-heavy, sweetly stinky bouquets would crowd my beside table, making it even more difficult to breathe.   

I could go to Hawaii, where I have some friends, and we would have a great time. Later, at the airport with my luggage, I turn back one last time and mouth the words, "Friends, I'm dying! Aloha! Good-bye!"  

 Or would it be better and more courageous to slink silently off into the night to die alone under the hedge, like a cat?

I struggle with these questions. Whether or not to die nobly or in extremely poor form, what difference would it make?  The end will justify the means.

What about the people who are going to be so freaked out by the whole business of death and dying that they will avoid me altogether, for that reason alone?  

Such a reaction could come from anywhere, creating a Judas of denial from anyone who cannot bear to step foot inside a hospital for anyone.  

I'd be all like, "Where is so-and-so, my dearest, best friend? Why aren't they here at such a time?"

And my dad would harrumph and explain, "So-and-so's an asshole." 

But, I will be saintly and tell everyone who is blowing me off while I am dying that I forgive them. 

I'll be a martyr, a real martyr, with the back of one hand against my humid brow and the other making the sign of the cross. 

"Godspeed, my brother, whilst I die over here, all sweaty."

I'll dole out absolution to every lost soul who's ever screwed me over, no matter how great or trivial the sin. 

For friends and lovers from my past who have already buried me in theirs, I shall leave word: 

"Fret not, dear soul. We're cool. No worries." 

Of course, I too have apologies to make. 

I would quickly point out, however, that I have never done anything to merit an early death. Nothing that you would actually hang me for.

I could associate some degree of shame with most of the people who are not talking to me. 

I can see myself calling them to apologize as part of my process of taking inventory, tidying up my soul, and so on. Preparing to meet my God. Judgment Day, etcetera

That could be a solid excuse, actually, to call and just let it drop that I'm dying. 

Thursday, 4 pm.  Am not dying. False alarm. Oh, well! Tomorrow's Friday!

[Originally drafted in 2008.]

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Leaving Black Magic Behind

This is the beginning of a new year, but in many ways  it feels oddly similar to last January.  Last year, it was the Women's March and pussy hats. This year, it's "Me, too" and Oprah's speech.

The cat who was so sick last year has a red and enflamed lip now. I give her a special antihistamine that cats can tolerate. It seems to help, but if I forget it for one day, her lip swells up. There is something about January that does not agree with my cat.

Two days of rain is predicted, to be followed by plunging temperatures that will create the same icy conditions that crippled my horse last year.

I received a card today from the American Association of Equine Practitioners informing me that our local veterinary clinic had made a donation in Belle's honor. They hoped that the kindness of that gesture might lesson my grief.

I decided, the other day, to reframe my understanding of why my horse died. Previously, I interpreted it as a punishment.  According to my logic, I had written a post about my dad, who didn't like it, and so, since Belle was a posthumous gift from him, he decided to rescind his gift.

I know. It was not the sort of magical thinking that magically made me feel better. It was the kind magical thinking that magically made me feel worse.

Which is why I don't like the expression "magical thinking." If I could do magic, I would not have chosen to make myself feel worse.

But maybe magical thinking is a colorful expression for any thinking that isn't grounded in hard science. The fact that a ghost played a part in it would, in that respect, make it magical.

I no longer choose to believe that my father killed my horse. I don't think he would ever smite a horse for any reason, no matter how mad or hurt he felt about anything.

Under the new magical regime, I believe that it was simply Belle's time.  Yes, I would have preferred that she live to a ripe old age, and she was only 12. Nonetheless, if it was her time, it was her time, and I'd rather have her die of some ridiculously obscure disease that I never could have anticipated or prevented, than have her die due to any neglect on my part--for which I could never forgive myself.

If anything, my father would have come up with that as a remedy. I can imagine him arguing with the authorities: first, about the horse having to die so young, and then, having lost that argument, and after much obsessing and not allowing anyone to think about anything else or get any of their work done, finally convincing them to have Belle die of an incredibly rare disease so that at least, when I lost her, I wouldn't blame myself.

Except, of course, I did; and what's worse, I implicated my father in the taking.

Well, that's one thing I won't be bringing into the new year. I can clearly see the mercy in my horse's weird disease.

I no longer have Belle in my barn, but I have her in the house. I found an amazing deal on canvas photos.  Despite Shutterfly telling me forever that the resolution of all my photos was too low to print  larger than 4 x 6, this company in Germany sent back these huge, vivid images of  Belle.

I'll show you:





I had almost abandoned the idea of ever having tangible forms of my photographs, resigned to having  them on clouds, Facebook, and Instagram--where I would have to wade through thousands to find any one in particular.

Ultimately, I bought five of them, all photos of Belle. They're in the living room, dining room, kitchen, and my bedroom.  She is in almost every room, in every season, in all her sorrel splendor.  There are more photos that I could blow up, and maybe next year I will.  For now, it's enough.

The day that she died was so full of horror, I won't ever be able to forget it.  But I don't have to think of it every time I think of her.  I can look at these photo of better memories many times a day.  I will take happy memories of Belle with me into 2018.

I also received an email today notifying me in the nicest terms that my manuscript was being politely rejected. I looked back at my spreadsheet: I had submitted the manuscript to this agent in March of last year.   If they had never responded at all, it would have made no difference to me. I was way past the point of anticipation.

I will not be spending this year revising my manuscript. I spent last year doing that. In my opinion,  it was better in 2016.

I received extensive critical feedback in 2017 from two different parties, and they were both in perfect disagreement. I have no idea how to proceed. I'm completely out of my depth.

I swear to God, I would write the same page a little differently every single day of my life. If it seemed at all purposeful, I could just keep doing that forever.

That does not seem at all purposeful.

So, I won't be taking that into the new year.

I am working on drumming up freelance work. My resume is a shambles. It's so much easier to write other people's resumes and cover letters than my own. My darkly magical thinking poisons the quill: I haven't done anything. My skills are outdated. I don't know anyone and one knows me....

I know that I am not alone in feeling insecure when faced with the daunting task of selling myself.

This will be the year of reinventing myself...My phoenix year.

And this will be the year when I am forced to come to terms with my failure to see my manuscript made into a published novel.

While I am comfortable with the choice to not continue with endless revisions, I have not yet made my peace with, nor do I fully understand, the end of this long-time effort.  I don't have a sense of closure--or direction.

So, unavoidably, this will be the year in which I interpret and accept or address the apparent failure of this long-labored-over manuscript--which will be no mean feat in itself.

By contrast, this blog has been a constant companion that never demands attention, approbation, or conclusion.  From year to year, it gathers my thoughts and connects me to friends, family, and far-flung readers who never dash off a harsh word in response to any of my constant opining (for which I am eternally grateful).

Needless to say, you're coming with me into 2018.


Sunday, December 31, 2017

HAPPY NEW YEAR! (No Pressure!)

I set a task for myself this week, which was to create a list of goals for 2018.  It was to be a short list, in order of priority, that would give focus to my time and energy going forward.

Given my penchant to fritter away the time, I thought this would be an important and useful exercise.

There is nothing better than a crisp to-do list to motivate my writing.  The key is for the words "spend time writing" to appear nowhere on the list. This cannot be overstated. If the word "write" is on the list,  I will not lay down a single word.

Circling back...I set myself the task of writing a list this week, and so far, I haven't got a thing.  I draw a complete blank.

 What are my goals? My priorities? What do I want to do with my life? My time?

HOW AND WHY CAN I NOT ANSWER THESE SIMPLE QUESTIONS?

Okay, don't panic. Let's just brainstorm, and list every single stupid idea that comes to mind:

1. Revise my manuscript over and over again, all year long.

2. Write a young adult novel based on my manuscript. Revise, write, repeat.

3. Self-publish and promote my manuscript as is, without assurances of any kind.

4. Put the manuscript aside, and find as much freelance work as possible. Make money! 

5. Read 10 great novels and then revise manuscript for the rest of the year.

6. Read 10 great young-adult novels, and then write a young adult novel.

7. Ride horses in all weather, like a rancher in Montana.

8. Learn how to paint trees and birds; develop a portfolio of Wisconsin-inspired Chinoiserie; take pictures of a wall that I paint over and over; develop a website; market myself as a Chinoiserie free-hand wall artist.

9. Immerse myself in politics. Figure out who's who at the state and local level, and how I might support the effort without texting, phoning, emailing, or knocking on doors. Maybe I could help research, write or edit speeches. Maybe I could collect signatures or bake cookies....

10. Is it too late to go to law school?

11.  Is it too late to go to circus camp?

12. Is it too late to learn how to sew and draw and design clothes that I'll never have occasion to wear?

13. Write and revise short stories. Submit them to publications for rejection.

14. Write and revise a screenplay. Submit to agencies for rejection.

15. Write romance novels. (No, don't.)

16. Keep a clean house.

17. Focus on diet and yoga.

18.  Go blonde.  Dare myself to dress in fashion, no matter how awful I look in high-waisted skinny pants, or how painful the shoes.

19. Find my inner something. Peace, maybe, or some countervailing need that requires therapy. Make it a year of self-discovery.  (No, don't.)

20. Make money with photography. Get a real camera. Figure out how it works.  Take the Annie Leibowitz Master Class.  Network like crazy.  See where that leads and take pictures of it.

21. Be the best darn wife and mother I can be!  Make wonderful meals, volunteer for everything, cut out coupons, decorate seasonally.

22. Learn how to groom the poodle and trim the horses' feet. Keep the dogs' claws neatly clipped.  Brush my pets' teeth daily (5 cats, 3 dogs, 2-and-a-half horses. That will occupy my time!)

23. Read all my email and maintain no more than 50 messages in my in-box at one time. (I currently have 2,908.)

24. Socialize more!  Do lunch!  Have coffee! Meet other mothers!  Have people over for dinner two or three nights a week!

25. Become a Packers fan. Figure out March Madness and fantasy football.  Go, Badgers!

26. Audition for a part with the Straw Hat Players (local drama troupe).  Enroll in improv, flamenco, and belly-dancing classes.  See where that leads and take pictures of it. (No, don't.)

27.  Have a Groupon year!  Go to wine tastings, brewery tours, spas, tanning salons, ballroom dancing, zip-lines, water parks, Olive Garden, dinner shows...!

28. Research my ancestry, submit cheek scrapings, learn how to draw a family tree for posterity--with added birds, for Chinoiserie.    

29. Attempt to renew relationships with old friends over the phone. Face-time them. Better yet, show up at the house unannounced! ( :

30. Plan an exotic trip, how to pay for it, and what to do with three geriatric dogs.  Add up all the points and miles on my credit cards and see how far that gets me!

31. Develop a profitable pyramid scheme!

32. Turn over a leaf of some kind.

This has been helpful. Thank you. I've come up with a lot of ideas! Now, I just need to refine my priorities and whittle this list down to  two or three main goals for 2018.

If you have better ideas, please write them under "Comments." I'm open to suggestions until midnight tonight, when the list MUST be finalized so that everything can snap neatly into place for 2018! (Yay!)

HAPPY NEW YEAR! No pressure at all!





Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Little Book of Christmases Past

I managed to send out some holiday cards this year. It's a time-consuming task, requiring an inventory of names and addresses, a supply of stamps and cards.  

I completely respect the choice of many not to add holiday cards to their to-do lists, which are already impossibly long. 

I hear those who point out that buying and mailing holiday cards is not green--all that paper and energy used to convey one sentiment from place to place, when sending it electronically is more efficient and clean. True!

However, having some time on my hands, I decided to send cards, and I'll tell you why: It gives me the opportunity to look back on a long life and remember all of the people--family and friends--of whom I have so many memories. 

It's humbling, and sobering, to realize how much time has gone by--that I now know so little about my old friends' lives.  

One friend who had been in a relationship for 12 years told me that they broke up in 2015.  

Another couple--both friends of ours--broke up, and I was too embarrassed to ask when, or for what reasons.  My seasonal wishes were welcome, but it was too late to offer support, or to demand a full report. Still, she was happy to hear from me. It is good to be remembered.

We're supposed to focus on the "here and now," but it's not like we have much choice. We have to live in the here and now most of the time just to function; we rarely have time to look backwards and return to where we have been.  

Sending cards gives me a solid excuse to spend time in the past, the greater part of my life that is submerged and invisible, like the vast expanse of the iceberg that you can't see except for that part protruding above the ocean's surface.  

My address book is over twenty years old.  It's small, with a soft leather cover. It was publishing swag in its day. 

A dog has chewed on the leather. I don't know which dog, any one of five.  

There are as more addresses in this book with an X struck through them than there are current addresses. 

There are two addresses for my father, who passed away in 2009.  

There are people in this address book whom I can no longer call friends.  

I thought I'd lost it.  I choked back the sick feeling that I had let my one thin tether to these people slip through my hands.  If they hadn't friended me on FB, they were gone.  

I told myself it didn't matter. Let go of the past.  

But with great relief I finally remembered where I had put it. My address book. The past.

For years, I planned to transcribe addresses into a new book. 

But if I did that, I would lose all those crossed-out addresses--everyone's history.

I'd have to make painful choices about who goes into the new book and who gets left behind.

I never want to make those decisions. 

So, though the leather cover is shredded and the binding has come unglued, and coffee has been spilled on and near this book, I will keep it, just as it is. 


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

ADD Is My Super-Power

I've considered writing about ADD before, but, for one reason or another, I haven't.  But now I will, because there are a lot of weird ideas about ADD out there, and I would like to speak to that.

ADHD or ADD?  Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or Attention Deficit Disorder?

I'll take ADD for three hundred. What is fidgety and distracted, but not hyperactive?

Someone told me there was no difference between the two.  I disagree.  I am not hyper.  My son is not hyper. Yet we both have attention deficit disorder.

That is, if you believe in ADD. Not everyone does. Some people think EVERYONE has ADD. Some people thing NO ONE has ADD.

Josh's kindergarten teachers first suggested he had ADD. The school psychologist got involved,  testing was done....

I had my doubts. I thought the test was bogus. Josh's GP was not convinced, either.

But the school was adamant. Josh was a quiet kid and well behaved, but he could not listen, follow directions, or pay attention worth a damn.  Everything had to be repeated over and over.  As kids stood up from their seats and shuffled about their business, Josh couldn't remember what he was supposed to do, why he was supposed to stand, or where he was supposed to go.

The medicine helped. It let him wrangle his thoughts and express himself in a clear, linear way that he couldn't before.

When he went off the medication for a day or two, he suddenly became hyperactive in a way that he hadn't been before he started taking the medication.  But as this went on for years, Josh came to believe that his non-medicated hyperactivity was ADHD.  Whereas, I viewed it as a side effect of the medication.

The medication curbed his appetite. When he went off it, not only did he become hyper, he also became ravenously hungry.

Unable to feel full one summer when he was not medicated, he quickly gained weight to the point of  becoming slightly obese.  It happened so fast, he hardly knew what to make of the love-handles ballooning around his middle where there had been a slender waist only weeks before.  All his clothes were too small, and I had to buy him "husky" pants two sizes larger.

Had we unintentionally broken his metabolic thermostat?

School started that fall, and by October his teachers reported that Josh was unable to focus...All of the usual complaints...We went back to his psychiatrist and resumed medication, which fixed everything at school and made Josh not eat his lunch.

At the same time that Josh went on medication for ADD, I went on medication for ADD. Sharpened me right up.

I had had the same complaints from my teachers in school.  I was smart, but distracted, rarely able to follow the drone of a lecture.  I perked up for teachers who made jokes and taught a lively class.

To this day, I believe that teachers should NOT be boring. Every subject is interesting, and to present it as otherwise is a crime.  Most of my teachers didn't express much passion for their subject, which I believe is why everyone thinks history is boring until they get a good teacher or a good history book by a great author like Nathaniel Philbrick.

I feel so strongly about this, perhaps I should have been a teacher; but I was such a terrible student.

I agree that it is obnoxious when people claim to be self-taught. But much of what I know I learned on my own.  As dull a student as I was, I was not entirely without curiosity.

I discovered Vincent Van Gogh and the Impressionists in the school library.  I read mythology at a library in Lynn, up the street from where I lived while in grade school. It was the coziest, sweetest, most welcoming library you could imagine. I spent quite a lot of time there as a kid.  (It's not open anymore, unfortunately.)

I perused my grandfather's book on Picasso, and found other books on Picasso. I seized my grandmother's first-edition of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, and read it in ninth grade.  I read Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men, completely ignoring homework and assigned reading.

It was a haphazard education to be sure, but it kept my brain from atrophying.

In high school, I was considered a smart kid, but I never knew the answers to questions like, "What were we supposed to study for the test?" or, "When did he say we were going to have a test?"



By spring, my son's teachers generally have one or two stories about some insightful thing Josh said during class.  They tell me he is a deep thinker.  

Josh confessed to me recently that he didn't have a complete mastery of the months of the year.  This did not surprise me.  It's a bureaucratic thing, really, time.  But not to know the months could be compromising, as time goes by, especially when one is considered smart and a deep thinker.

"Don't worry, Josh. It's very ADD not to know the months of the year. But you have a fine memory, and they're easy to learn."  We were a mile from home. By the time we pulled into the driveway, Josh was all set with the months.

He came home from school recently and told me that a teacher had said that ADD was a learning disability, like autism and Down's Syndrome. Josh now believed that he was "retarded," (his word, not mine).

No, I said. That's totally wrong. First of all, the word retarded is retarded. Don't ever use that word.

Second, ADD, ADHD, autism, Down's Syndrome...These are all different things.  There's no point in lumping them all together.  That's just dumb.

What kind of fascist normative idiot lumps all these things together?  What is the point, except to encourage misunderstanding and prejudice?

I chose to believe that Josh had misunderstood or misinterpreted what the teacher said.  Because if I thought that a teacher had actually said this and meant it, I'd have to march into school and set a few things straight. And Josh really hates it when I do that.

I heard a TedTalk from a "scientist" who compared people with ADD (or ADHD, suit yourself) to rockets without fuel.  We just sit there on the tarmac, all decked out and going nowhere.  According to him, we were a pathetic and hopeless lot.

Hey! I know a professor at Queen's College, Cambridge who was once a kid with ADD.  He's not doing too badly.  He has invented useful biotechnological devices and underwater cameras for taking pictures of tiny little amazing creatures...He's got patents up the wazoo...He's designed and made his own boats...He's HAPPY and BRILLIANT, you small-minded, trash-talking little man, spouting hateful bogus theories that compress and marginalize people whom you clearly don't understand.

Most people think of ADD as a liability.  Yes, we can't pay attention to stuff we don't care about--or that we could care about if it weren't being presented to us in a manner so aggressively boring.

However, when we are interested, we pay SUPER attention.  We can focus and remember and learn to beat the band.  We immerse ourselves to an almost obsessive degree. We surround the subject.  We learn plenty.

People with ADD have two advantages over people who don't have ADD:

First, because we don't do our best work (understatement) on topics that don't interest us, through a process of elimination we discover the things that do interest us.

And the second advantage is that we do very well in those areas that interest us.

I've known a few people, star students in high school and college, who never discovered their true calling in life.  They excelled at academia. They were well rounded.  But they could never decide what they wanted to do in their career or in their life at that same level of achievement.

The trick for people with ADD (or ADHD) is not to fail out of school before we discover what interests us.  We have to make it out of academia with our self-esteem and aura of being smart intact.

Academia is not our natural habitat. We are not well-rounded creatures.

Our executive functioning skills are extremely immature when we are children. We're disorganized, and frequently late. Even medicated, we lose track.  So, we have to be forgiven for forgetting, and for spacing out from time to time.  We need to be encouraged to go after class and ask about what we missed, and get the help that we need to understand what we didn't quite get the first time.

The important thing to remember is that this doesn't make us retarded.

If someone has to call ADD a learning disability, the question I would ask is why must it be framed negatively.  What good does that do?  Maybe it makes someone feel superior, someone who doesn't have ADD.

My son has occasionally said, "Autism is my super power."  I don't know why he says that, because he's not autistic. But I think it is funny, because I believe that autism has a super-power side to it, just like ADD does (our ability to hyper focus on what interests us).  I've written before about Temple Grandin, whose work I greatly admire. She uses her super-power, autism. It poses significant challenges, yes, but it also gives her amazing perspective and insight.

For all of these reasons, I had to write about ADD, finally.  I had to answer to the TedTalk doc who said we were rockets going nowhere, and to the teacher who somehow made my son think that he was "retarded."

I had to answer to the friend who explained that she had fired an assistant because she had ADD, which rendered her untrainable and intellectually deaf.  While I resemble that remark, I resent it, too.

People with ADD are trainable, educable, reachable space cadets.  If we're medicated, we can excel even in the most barbarously boring regimen.  But, if we are able to pursue our true calling, we really don't need to be medicated.  We are tricked out rockets, man, with fuel to spare.

And don't you ever forget it, Josh.


















Friday, December 15, 2017

The Virtues of Winning and Losing

My son's voice recently dropped from alto/tenor to baritone/bass.

I occasionally receive a call from someone who sounds like James Earl Jones asking me to bring his lunch box to the middle school because he forgot it at home.

I can imagine, and I have observed, the effect this new voice has on a boy's sense of self.

Nowhere is it more apparent than on the wrestling mat, where, in previous years, Josh had always deferred to his opponents.  At the end of each season, he accepted his participation medal with unalloyed joy and good-natured, self-deprecating good humor as well as some pride.

I respected and appreciated the grace and resilience with which he was able to lose without it spoiling his enjoyment of the sport.

However, because I cannot go back to my childhood and tell myself that I was as good as average in some sports, and had the potential to be better-than-average in others; that I had latent gifts of physical strength; that my shortness of breath was exercise-related asthma, and not a moral failing... Because I cannot go back to reassure myself that I would have learned to swim a straight line had I persisted...it would all come together eventually if I had the patience.

I could have competed. I could have been somebody. Instead of what I was. Which was a quitter.

I saw too much of my childhood self in Josh during those first two years of wrestling, when he was always a deer in the headlights, intimidated and pounced upon by those giant slavering cats.

I feared that one day, years from now when he is grown, he would wonder what he might have accomplished if he could have imagined himself differently...If he had somehow been more confident, able to cast himself in the role of a kid who could also win.

In losing, Josh had demonstrated extraordinary resilience, buoyancy, and good sportsmanship. He mastered the virtues of losing, which is more difficult, when you think about it, than winning with grace.  Anyone can lose, but to do it without deterioration to morale or motivation is a gift.

Some kids are so intent on winning, so accustomed to winning, and so completely committed to winning that when they are defeated it can only be to another alpha wolf. Submission is unnatural for them, and must be ripped away forcibly. Afterwards, they seem physically and emotionally destroyed.  The toughest  come away tearful, or sobbing.

I didn't need Josh to be the best. I just want him to know that he is as capable of sometimes winning as other kids.

This year, this season, for the first time, my son stepped onto a wrestling mat like a half-starved predator. He  intimidated, pounced on, and pinned his stunned opponent.

I have a confession to make. I did not see it. I was there, in the bleachers, looking down at my phone.

I looked up. I thought Josh's match was about to begin, but, in fact, it had just ended.

Yes, I know. I am a horrible person. I shall never live it down.

In my defense, wrestling tournaments are at once horribly overstimulating and mind-numbingly under-stimulating. The chaos caroms off of every surface like a migraine in a skull. This tournament was a three-ring circus under harsh lights, with even harsher seating.

It was Josh's first victory, his first taste of triumph. And I had missed it.

At the next tournament, I did not take my phone out of my pocket. I saw everything.

It was as if he had been released from a cage.  He dropped and pinned his opponent like a panther on a gazelle.

"Did you see it?"

"I did!"

And I have to say, I was as happy about that win as I had been about anything in my entire life.

Two years I had waited for this. Two complete seasons.

In the next match, Josh encountered another carnivore. He wrestled valiantly round after round until, exhausted, he offered up his throat for a quick end.

He told me the other day that participation medals should be phased out. He thinks going to every practice and showing up at every tournament, suffering every loss and the occasional bloody nose does not merit a nickel-plated plastic medallion on a ribbon.

I could not disagree more.  Participating is not nothing. Losing is not easy.  For some of us, it is a long passage indeed, and one that we have to get through intact before we can have our first taste of victory. I did not make it through that passage, but Josh did. And I'm so proud him!  

Anyway, a participation medal is not first, second, or even sixth place. It simply recognizes that one has participated.

For two years, that medal meant something to Josh.  And I admired that kid with the high voice and low expectations for being able to enjoy a sport which so thoroughly schooled him in the virtues of defeat.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Your Robot Never Loved You

I read an article yesterday in The Atlantic, "Should Children Form Emotional Bonds with Robots?" https://www.theatlantic.com/…/12/my-sons-first-robot/544137/

The author buys a small, simple robot for his son. The robot is animated by an app on the father's phone.  It has two circle-eyes and a line-mouth on its screen face, but between that screen face and a range of sounds, the robot is able to "express" a wide range of "emotions."

I put "express" and "emotions" in quotes, but in the article, these words were not in quotes, and the questions remain unasked: Is the robot expressing emotion the way living things with faces express emotion?  Or is the robot no different from a doll that cries when we pull a string (except that the string, and the timing of the pulling of the string, has been pre-programmed into the robot's software to create the illusion of self-expression--and therefore, of self)?

Robotic self-expression: It's an oxymoron, isn't it?  ...at least until AI is so advanced that...well, that's another can of worms.  We're not quite there yet. I hope.

Really loud alarms started going off in my head as I was reading this yesterday. Since then, I've been wondering whether that wasn't an over-reaction.  My first thought was that people are going to replace pets with robots.

Unlike robots, which are programmed to charm us and to mirror the human way of thinking, animals are innately different from us.  They learn differently and they think differently. Dogs may cater to our vanity by obsessively observing our faces to interpret our every mood and emotion.... I'm not saying that don't suck up...But they're different from us, and from each other, each according to its breed.

I can honestly say that my dogs have been so different, one from the other, that to a great degree, I have started from square one at the beginning of my relationship with each one of them.

Our pets challenge us to think beyond our own way of being and our own personal agenda. They challenge us to understand a creature that is different, and they require that we relate to them in a way that isn't always convenient, and which imposes a degree of structure and even altruism on our lives.

And I think that is all to the good.

Moreover, pets, as animals, create a bridge for children to begin appreciating other kinds of animals.When we've loved one or two different animals, we can imagine loving other animals.

This may be less important for us as humans than it is for animals, both domestic and wild; because if we stop caring about animals, then what will stop us from destroying their habitats and harvesting animals for their hands, tusks or hides?

Take elephants, for example. I've never owned an elephant, but I always wanted to know one when I was a kid.  Everything I've learned about elephants over the years has just made them more interesting to me.

A friend of mine spent some time, years ago, in the Congo, searching for a particular herd of elephants (for research purposes, not to hunt).  She told me that she left her backpack on the ground for a moment, and when she returned, she discovered that an elephant had come along and stepped on it, squashing it into the ground.  This was in the midst of a two-week safari spent searching for these elephants. She said she sensed that they were often close by, observing her group from a safe distance, without being found.

I've seen elephants and other animals in underfunded zoos expressing mind-crumbling loneliness, boredom, or anguish.

When people see animals in distress, they want to make the habitat nicer for them. They give the zoo money. I've seen this happen right here in Madison.  I've seen polar bears living in becalmed madness upgraded to a better situation, with convivial companions, deeper swimming pools, space to roam, and icy caves where they can retreat from the glare of public attention.

I feel now as I did last year, when my horse and cat were both injured and sick; I feel that we must all be paying close attention to animals, to nature, and to our own vulnerable habitat.

The last thing we need now is to wean a generation of children off of having relationships with animals by redirecting their emotional capital toward robots.

What will the robot give the child in return?  Will it give love?  Will it connect a child to other creatures, earthlings like itself?  Will it teach the child to be gentle, responsible, and conscientious?  Will it give the child a deeper appreciation of the importance and value of needing green space all around us?   Will it teach a child humility, as they stoop to clean up after their pet?

Or will it teach a grown child that the affection they thought they were getting from a robot was not real?  And that the small anguish they felt as they neglected that robot was completely unnecessary--a softly cruel manipulation designed to mimic the importance of commitment to something real and alive?  In short, the whole premise of the robot being sentient and feeling and real in the way it was assumed to be real was fake.

I don't think that robots are like TV.  We stare at the TV for hours, but we don't love the TV as an individual machine.

We love how our smartphones can be tailored to our interests and needs.  But as long as all of the stuff can be transferred to another one, we don't hesitate to upgrade to a new phone out of some sense of attachment to the old.

These robots, with their displays of colorful emotion, are a little like Santa Clause, in a sense. They are a fiction born of good intentions and collective commercialized mythology.

But the relationship that a child might have with a robot would feel qualitatively and fundamentally more profound than the child's relationship with Santa Clause. Santa Clause comes but once a year. The robot moves right in.

So, let us never forget that a robot is not alive. It does not express emotions (it parrots them), because it cannot experience emotions.

There are no real consequences to the robot's neglect--or its "love."  It is all an illusion, and and a huge gulping vortex of a distraction from the immediate perils of other earthlings in our midst, (not to mention ourselves, with respect to our own absolutely essential relationship with nature).  It is a massive distraction from everything that pets as animals can teach us, and from everything that we stand to lose by not paying attention to them--or, God forbid, by forgetting all about them in the space of one generation.

Yes, alarms went off.  I still hear them.



Friday, December 1, 2017

What Will this Backlash Look Like?

In the midst of a dozen or so powerful and wealthy men losing face and employment over  allegations of sexual misconduct, I have heard concerns raised by men I know who say that if this staggering pace of discoveries continues, we will soon see innocent men persecuted by false accusations.

These men of whom I speak don't view themselves as unsympathetic to women's interests in confronting sexual harassment and enforcing laws against sexual discrimination.  But something about seeing so many men publicly stripped of their jobs and honor sets off alarms for them.  

Could this be a media-fueled feeding frenzy? A witch hunt?  Femi-Nazi McCarthyism?

These men see themselves as potential victims in an environment of reckless paranoia that gives license to anyone from their past to surface with some baseless accusation and cost them their livelihoods and reputations.

When they think about a possible backlash to all of these firings, they envision a proliferation of allegations as randomly and broadly consuming as the wildfires in Northern California.  

But I see the situation very differently.  If no laundry has been washed for 50 years, and then we suddenly decide to wash it, why should we be surprised that so much dirty laundry has piled up?

Most of the accused men have admitted that the allegations against them are true, or, if they didn't remember that particular incident, they admitted that the behavior ascribed to them was not atypical and they did not deny that it probably happened.  

Most of the accused are very rich and have had hugely successful careers. They can well afford to walk off into the sunset and reflect on the condition of their souls and how they might wash out those stains. 

Yes, there have been a lot of men brought down from great heights, but so far nothing suggests a miscarriage of justice. If any of these men want to have their day in court, they can have it. But they don't want to go to court, because they've already admitted to wrongdoing and they would rather go away quietly than have all their dirty laundry aired out over months or years.

The fact that some of these men have settled matters of sexual misconduct out of court numerous times, over many years, paying the plaintiff hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars, sweeping each incident under the rug, avoiding exposure, bad press and reprisals...also means different things to different people. 

Some people see wealthy men as easy marks who are forced to shell out obscene amounts of money to greedy subordinates and lawyers.  That is the price a great man must pay to protect his reputation from random, inevitable, unseemly attacks. 

I see it very differently.  When men like Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly leave a trail of sexual harassment settlements totaling $90 million (paid for by 21st Century Fox) [per cnbc.com, 11/21/17], I see a conspiracy of powerful men and rich corporations (and human resource departments that serve  corporate interests) sweeping all of that dirty laundry under the bed and into the closet, doing nothing to stop sexual predation in the workplace, and financially and with tacit acceptance supporting a culture of egregious behavior that debases and disenfranchises women.

When I envision a backlash to this no-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment, I am reminded of the very recent backlash in response to all those videos on social media showing unjustified violence and abuses against black people.  

At first, white folks found it utterly shocking. A lot of white people thought racism was a thing of the past, since we had elected a black president.  But these videos clearly contradicted that assumption and showed us that racism remained a pervasive problem.  

The media began to focus on  "institutional racism," what it meant, and what might be done about it.  

But soon, racism, and specifically police violence against black people, became polarized in the minds of white folks: We were either sympathetic to the sacrifices and welfare of the police, or we were committed to the idea that black lives matter and something needs to be done to protect those lives.  

Next thing you know, the Alt Right crops up out of nowhere, entering the mainstream with a megaphone.  Anti-political correctness becomes a rallying cry for conservatives.  

Widespread gerrymandering contorts the voting landscape to favor a pro-wall Republican party. 

Trump vows to "make America great again," takes the White House, and proceeds to push back against the demographic trend of white people losing ground, statistically, as the majority in a functioning democracy.  

Trump states, erroneously,  that if it weren't for millions of illegal votes (from people of color, mostly brown) he would have won the popular vote in a landslide.  

It's a bogus claim, but it's part of a two-pronged approach to reduce the numbers of brown people in the country and to undermine the democracy which would have reflected their interests as a burgeoning majority, vote for vote.

Instead, brown people are rounded up and extradited, (as had been happening already in record numbers under Obama with regard to Mexicans).  Trump promises to build a wall to prevent more brown people from crossing the southern border, and he does his best to ban other brown people from a list of predominantly Moslem countries, even those with visas, from entering the U.S. 

A new "forgotten America" becomes the focus of media attention and political interest.  

They are working-class white people from the Midwest, predominantly white communities, predominantly men who have lost jobs that had been sent overseas.  Their local economies have been carelessly undercut by corporate profit motives.  Their retirement funds are in no way linked to the fortunes of Wall Street.  Unlike most people in the blue states or anyone with an IRA or 401k, they have no seat at that banquet of small investors, and no clear way to make a living.   

They also happen to be Republicans, and onboard with making America white again: building walls, banning Muslims, tearing apart Latino families--attacking any shift in policy that steers us away from white privilege and toward a less institutionally racist society.

Trump makes it very clear whose side he is on: He is on the side of that forgotten America. And he is on the side of the police, giving law enforcement carte blanche.

So, how do I imagine a backlash against women (for this sudden enforcement of a 50-year old law banning sexual harassment in the workplace) will play out?  

Well, first, I think that ordinary men will find the pace at which other men are being outed and ousted for sexual harassment personally threatening regardless of whether they have ever been guilty of sexual harassment themselves.  

The integrity of  the investigations into sexual harassment allegations will be called into question. (Already, we have heard the term "witch hunt"; thank you very much, Woody Allen.)  

Feminists will be increasingly vilified as over-empowered man-haters.  (That seems to be well underway.)  

We will see men organizing into new social-political splinter groups that view harassment charges as a plot by feminists to keep good guys down.  

Men will be less likely to hire attractive women, or to have a one-to-one meeting or business lunch with women for fear that they may be rapacious opportunists who will call on their lawyers from the Ladies Room.  

In short, a whole lot of guys will view women as potential threats to their livelihoods and standing in society.  

I think that's where the backlash begins. 

In conclusion, I was going to say, "I don't know how it will end," but that sounds too bleak and hopeless, even for me. I'm not all that hopeful about this, in fact, but I do believe in the good as well as the bad in people. 

I think a tsunami of a backlash could be avoided if most of the men who have been charged with allegations of sexual harassment continue, as some of them have done, to now speak truth and discourage other men from believing for a moment that they have been unfairly persecuted.

These men need to remind everyone that it was their victims--women, and in some cases, men--who have been damaged by sexual harassment--and not, by some twisted logic, the other way around.

If these men who have admitted to sexual misconduct accept the consequences of their actions publicly, and repeatedly remind other men that they have not been the victims of a witch hunt, and that their shame is appropriate and real;  if they can make other men can understand that they have nothing to fear if they themselves have not committed any real crimes against other people...

It's a lot to expect, I know: but it's also the least they could do.

If such men assume a leading role in teaching other men that they do not view themselves as having been caught up in a witch hunt or media-fueled feeding frenzy, or the work of over-empowered rapacious femi-Nazis, then maybe we could actually move forward, instead of back. 

Stand in solidarity with everyone's right not to be sexually harassed or molested. It's really that simple.

Otherwise, expect a horrendous backlash against all women that leaves no one unscathed.   


Endnotes

Alaska Airlines is investigating Randi Zuckerberg's claim of sexual harassment by another passenger.

Matt Lauer's patterns of sexual harassment was "the result of a two-month investigation by "Variety"; the cause of his dismissal from NBC was a detailed complaint from another NBC employee who met with NBC's HR department. On 11/30/17, Matt Lauer admitted to sexual misconduct and apologized. 

The Senate Ethics Committee has opened a preliminary inquiry into the allegations against Sen. Al Franken [Huffington Post, 11/30/17].

The House Ethics Committee is investigating allegations of sexual harassment against Rep. John Conyers. [Susan Davis, All Things Considered, NPR, 11/27/17]

UVA is investigating sexual harassment allegations against an English Professor. [Nick Anderson, Washington Post, 11/27/17]

Allegations against Sen. Moore were investigated by two staff members of the Washington Post. 

As part of a coordinated effort by a right-wing group, n activist tried to embarrass [discredit] the Washington Post with a false sexual harassment accusation against Sen. Moore. [USA Today, William Cummings, 11/27/17]





Saturday, November 25, 2017

Being a Red Scarf

As someone close to my family and the turkey processing industry reminded me over Thanksgiving, it was Temple Grandin who revolutionized the way turkeys are slaughtered.

Before Temple Grandin, the whole process, from the arrival of the bird at the plant to the moment of its demise, was so stressful for the bird that it altered its body chemistry and adversely impacted the flavor of its meat.

For that reason, and maybe also because it was more humane, processing plants implemented Temple Grandin's humane and low-stress design.  [I would encourage you to see the HBO movie, "Temple Grandin," or read one of Grandin's books, such as Animals in Translation, which I found fascinating.]

In addition to having a Ph.D., Temple Grandin has autism. It was the autism that gave Grandin her unique insight about how to make various meat-processing plants infinitely kinder and less stressful for the animals.  There is a whole spectrum of autism, of course, but having a sharp awareness of details and any changes in the environment is part of autistic perception.

Animals also have a sharp awareness of subtle changes in their environment.  It stems from their  instinct to be constantly alert to the appearance of danger.  For example, a horse would notice and probably be frightened by a red scarf that hadn't been on the fence earlier.

People who don't have autism have a tendency to lump everything in their environment into categories.  For example, a lot of people becomes a crowd--instead of many individuals in a confined area behaving differently in subtle ways according to what makes them each unique.

While it is useful to organize our environment through symbols, grids, maps, generalizations...to put things neatly into boxes...everything in its proper place...Being able to put stuff into categories is just one skill set and one type of perception.  It has its utility; it is a particularly human perspective; but
there's nothing to suggest that we benefit from putting everything into categories, or that anything that does not fit neatly into our Dewey Decimal System should be rejected.

At first, the red scarf frightens the horse because it hadn't been there earlier.  But, after a while, when the scarf doesn't move, the horse approaches.  When the scarf still does not move, the horse moves closer.  The horse is curious.  Eventually, every horse in the area will sniff and taste that scarf.  They will pull it off the fence. The scarf will be thoroughly investigated until the horses understand it for what it is, which is NOT a lion.

People should be more like horses in this way. Not everything has to fit neatly into boxes.  Fear is okay as a first response, but after that we should be more curious.  We should be more like the horse that does not condemn the scarf for being different, but investigates it with caution and an open mind.

But we aren't like horses that way.  We have two bathrooms, Men's and Women's.  It's a big deal if someone uses the wrong one.

The whole gender identity thing is about people not allowing themselves to be trapped in a box that they makes them uncomfortable for the rest of their lives.

What music did you listen to in high school?  Did the answer to that question determine who you were and where you could eat your lunch?

JFK's "Camelot" occurred when society was super hung up on the idea that there was a right way to be.   The Kennedy family had good looks, the best of health, education, athleticism, decorated military service....At least that's how they appeared to folks on the outside.

But it was also true that JFK was a compulsive philanderer and in miserable health.  Those parts were hidden from public view. JFK's affairs and back pain were concealed.  A Kennedy sister who was intellectually compromised was hidden from view.

At the same time, women were taking speed in the form of diet pills to maintain their 23-inch waist.  Brilliant, creative, ambitious women--Anne Sexton, Diane Arbus, Sylvia Plath--were committing suicide.

Homosexuals and anyone with "gender confusion" were "deviants."

"Deviant." The word seems to hint at the criminal underworld.

Deviant means "departing from usual or accepted standards."

I'm not suggesting that society shouldn't have standards.  Not everything is relative. I think something is wrong if it measurably damages someone--but not if it simply offends another person's moral construct (i.e., the boxes themselves).

The non-autistic human tendency is to cleave to our boxes. I think it's universal and transcends party lines. I seem to encounter it everywhere.

For example, from an on-line application to join a website that encourages creativity, and which publishes forward-thinking articles on a wide range of subjects:

What type of writing do you do?

Drop-down menu options:

  • journalism
  • self-exploration
  • humorist
  • fiction
  • science fiction
I would have been willing to admit that I wrote think pieces (that sounds pompous) if that was an option, but I was not willing to admit to "self-exploration" (that's just gross).  I couldn't pretend to be a journalist.  

Was there another option?  Could I write it in?  

No. And I was required to choose one from the list. 

I picked "humorist," but I didn't feel good about it.

The next box--literally, it was a text box--asked me to write a brief and "random" description of myself. In the box. It had to be "random." (Because they wanted me to think outside the box?!)

First, I have to tell you that they wanted to know my age.  

They had a drop-down menu, but it only went up to 50.  After 49 was "50+".  

Clearly they didn't give a crap about people over 50. Fifty or eighty, it was all the same to them.  

I was a 50 to 100-year old humorist from Wisconsin.  

I knew exactly how that went over with people from the East Coast who, despite being enlightened  champions of creativity, felt the need to squeeze people into a ridiculous little box.  

I wrote:  "I am not the lady you think of when you think of a 50-80 year-old woman from Wisconsin. I cannot describe myself in a few random words. I am complicated."

So far, they have not accepted my application.  

Which reminds me of another experience with a progressive on-line organization that I joined.  They had moderators who selectively chose which comments were polite and benign enough to post on their site.  

I can only assume that they did not appreciate the tone of my comment.  I'm not talking about trolling, I'm talking about 2-4 lines of text that would not possibly have damaged anyone. 

Apparently, I offended their sense of what was appropriate for their Comments box.  

Part of me wants to rebel against any organization that censors me, or at least point out to them the contradiction in saying that they support writers while at the same time they censor them.  

But, given the political moral authority of that website, I felt humbled and ashamed.  My esteemed peers had taken my measure and found me lacking.  

A different example:  Where I used to go to church, we had our photographs taken for a new directory. The photographer photoshopped the ragged neck of my t-shirt into something more formal in black. He ennobled my image and promoted me to a saintly image of a minister or abbess. He liked it so much that he framed and hung that photo in the lobby.  

I was mortified. Even though it was the opposite of air-brushing my clothes off, which I also would not have wanted, I felt that he had taken liberties with my identity (but with the best of intentions--I'm sure he meant to do me honor). 

I do not see myself as a formal, saintly, 50-plus-lady from-Wisconsin or minister or abbess at all.  

There is no virtue to organizing everyone into boxes. There is greater virtue in how a horse deals with a scarf.  The horse doesn't judge the scarf just because he fears it.  The horse keeps an eye on that scarf, and then cautiously approaches.  It investigates.  But non-autistic humans, we maintain our distance and declare the scarf a deviant. We walk away and leave it there without ever returning to investigate the true nature of a scarf.

I'm a scarf, dammit. A red scarf!


















 




Friday, November 17, 2017

Adding Her Voice to An Important Conversation

I have been lucky: No one I've ever worked for has made unwanted sexual overtures in my direction.  

I had a colleague in Hawaii who told me that our boss (moments before) kissed her on the mouth with tongue,  totally without her permission.

Neither of us knew what to do about it.

I expressed empathy... "Ew!"

It happened in the last days of our employment, when our boss had nothing to lose.

It was 1991, and sexual harassment in the workplace had been a violation of the Civil Rights Act since 1964. But, my friend and I were unaware of any law or policy or prescribed recourse that defended our physical sanctity.

Perhaps, if she had gone to H.R., she might have learned that there was a policy and a process in place to support her grievance against him.  She did not report it to HR, and anyway, I doubt there was any such process in place.

Truly unhandsome, our boss bore a striking resemblance to C. Montgomery Burns from "The Simpsons." He was tall, slouched, beaky, and profoundly cynical.

Beyond that, what made his kiss unwelcome was that my friend had been working with him closely and had actually grown to like him better as a person.

She was fragile when she took the job.  She had just moved home to her parents in Hawaii to get away from a high-flying life and relationship in New York that crash-landed.  A man whom she worked with in New York broke her heart, and she came away feeling used and discarded.

With the support of parents and friends in Hawaii, she was trying to make a new start.

She was 29, and half Hawaiian on her mother's side. She was excited about working at the state museum of natural and cultural history, where she was hired as the marketing director of the museum's small press. (I was the assistant editor at the time.)

For months, we were both rudderless, treading water while our boss holed up in his office catching up on personal correspondence.

He had been an editor on the East Coast for twenty-odd years, and seemed to think of this job as his retirement.

For over a year, our jobs seemed practically fraudulent. It was only at the very end that we began to have meaningful work.

What our boss knew, and we didn't, was that we would soon lose our jobs. That iteration of the press was soon to be disbanded.

The director relished his last weeks and days as publisher and indulged us, finally, as we looked to him for leadership.

After he was fired, our ex-boss moved back to the mainland. About a year later, he flew to Maui for a vacation. That was a big mistake.

The islands, you see, well...

I learned a few things about Hawaii, and one of them was that the land--a'ina--was intrinsically connected to the people and spirit of Hawaii. In essence, it was alive.

And so, it surprised neither my hapa-Hawaiian friend nor myself that our ex-boss died while on Maui.

I know! Magical thinking!  Whatever! Judge me harshly. Scorn all religion. That's your prerogative.

I wouldn't say that our ex-boss deserved to die for a stolen kiss, for the promises he failed to keep, or for the cynical eye he cast upon romantics and every form of idealism.

But, consider this: Hawaii, the a'ina, barely tolerated me.  Young, idealistic and compassionate as I was, I remained every inch a haole from Boston.

Think Dole pineapple acid in canneries dissolving Hawaiian fingerprints. Think lacerating sugar cane and the overthrow of peaceful monarchy. Those were my people, the Bostonians.

Think Navy-girlfriend-occupier-parasite. Hello! Here I am.

The more I learned about Hawaii, the more I loved it and understood that I did not belong there.

When my husband's tour of duty was over, we moved back to the mainland.

My friend stayed in Hawaii and continued her struggle to feel whole and strong.

I'm not saying that her mental breakdown was our ex-boss's fault for kissing her, or that it was my fault for leaving.  It wasn't the fault of the man in New York who made her feel loved and used and discarded.

But I can't imagine that any of us helped.

I've wondered what would have happened to her if I had stayed.  I know it sounds  egotistical to even suggest that I might have made a difference...The fact that it does sound like pure hubris assuages my  guilt.

She jumped off a building. She survived, but her foot had to be amputated.

By the time I returned for a visit in 2000, she had recovered her mental health.  She seemed strong and happy. She held a position on Honolulu's Board of Mental Health.

She told me how she lapsed into schizophrenia the first time, and somehow, through intervention and medication, managed to get healthy again.

She expressed compassion, and even admiration, for that schizophrenic version of herself: the feats of travel and deceit (credit card charges, false identities) as she traveled from that South Pacific archipelago all the way to New York and back (and later, again, to Boston).

Mentally ill though she was, she had been resourceful and cunning.

Sometime after my visit, she became ill again and moved to Massachusetts, where I lived.  She called and left strange messages.

I saw her for the last time on Beacon Street in Brookline.  She was angry and sullen.  I tried to move conversation but it wouldn't budge.

We sat across from each other, barely speaking. She threw off hate vibes as I attempted small talk.

We walked in brooding silence to a building where her boyfriend lived. She invited me upstairs. I declined.  She was angry, I didn't know her boyfriend, and it didn't feel particularly safe.

She wanted to return a book I had given her.

I waited outside. It was cold and dark.

She went into the building and retrieved the book, with a card I had written tucked between the pages.

She said she didn't want anything of mine.

I took the book and offered a hug. She scoffed at the suggestion.

I walked back to my car, sad, hollowed out.  I couldn't begin to imagine how she felt.

I know CPR.  I've been instructed to use a defibrillator. I could probably tie off a bleeding artery.  But I don't know the first thing about rescuing a friend in the grip of mental illness.

She seemed to view the world through the prism of metaphor (yes, even more than myself).

In voicemails, she accused me of reaping souls to sculpt heads out of clay.

This was flattering, actually, because I wasn't that good a sculptor. And it was ghastly-funny, because, while in Hawaii, I did sculpt several heads from clay and they all appeared to be stuck on pikes--the metal armature visible beneath the neck.  I had several life-sized heads on pikes in a single studio apartment, unintentionally creating a kind of gallows aesthetic.

Other messages were affectionate. Some were warm and platonically effusive. The messages came at odd hours.  I only spoke to her on the phone twice.

She died in 2010.  I'm sure she committed suicide, but I don't know how.  The obit said nothing about how she died or about mental illness.

I can avoid assigning blame to myself, and admit that I had no idea how to help her, and in that way, and in other respects, too, I may have failed her.

But I can write on her behalf, and add her story to an important conversation.

She experienced sexual harassment at work.  It was damaging, and nothing was done about it.

 



Cooper Report #4





Cooper is settling in nicely.  He has excelled in his lessons and become a star pupil.
 He doesn't mind being petted or haltered.  He is learning to walk nicely on a lead rope, and to lift his feet up one at a time so we can pick and trim his tiny little hooves.

Cooper only becomes aggressive around food, where, in his greed, he loses all perspective, shoving aside and threatening to kick two much bigger horses. I definitely would not use treats to reward or train him; once he realized they were in my pocket, I think he would probably mug me.

The burden of Cooper's misbehavior has been entirely transferred to my Palomino Quarter Horse, Tanner.  You may recall Tanner from earlier posts in which I waxed poetical about his many triggers and how I successfully addressed each one with great insight and compassion.

Yeah, well that all went out the window.

Psychologizing, ethics, and religiosity will only get a horse so far.

Tanner woke up one morning and decided that he would never allow me to put a halter on him again.

This put me in the exact same predicament with Tanner that we (the trainer and I) had just overcome with Cooper.

Dammit, Tanner! What about all the love and trust we built up over the years?  What about the bit-less bridle?  Where now that sweet soft eye?  Did none of it mean anything to you?

I couldn't get near him with a halter in my hand.  He wouldn't let me touch his poll or ears.

Of course, I had my theories about why this was happening.

I had used Tanner to get Cooper into the round pen. I had haltered Tanner, walked him into the round-pen, and when Cooper followed us inside, I promptly ejected Tanner and closed the gate behind him.  Then I worked with Cooper exclusively--my star pupil!  I had hurt Tanner's feelings by using him to get to Cooper and then rejecting him.

I tried to make it up to him. I spent time with Tanner and paid no attention to Cooper.  Tanner stood nicely while I petted him, but at the sight of a halter, he turned tail and charged at Cooper, nipping and lording over the littlest herd mate, an easy mark outside of meal time.  (Cooper's choppy trot reminds me of someone other than Sarah Jessica Parker running in very high heels.)

Yesterday,  Fire and Tanner were posturing like stallions.  The 21-year-old Polish Arabian paraded like a young athlete, and fended off Tanner's challenges to his number-one status.  They put on a good show.  They looked wild and tall.  It struck me as absurd to think that I should insert myself between them and assert my own authority.

Not for the first time, I felt overwhelmed. Having such large and wild pets may have been a mistake.  Maybe I was getting too old for this.

Not long ago, I had the impression that I knew so much about horses; but now, unable to get a halter on my main ride, I felt like I knew absolutely nothing.

All my pretty behavioral theories had gotten me exactly where? Outside in a field holding a halter in the rain.

For all my observations and surmisals, I could not outsmart a Palomino.

And that's when I called Jen, the engineer who trains horses.

She was not especially interested in hearing about my theories on how Tanner came to this hostile position via a path of betrayal and jealousy.

While the conflicts and insecurities of herd dynamics make nice conversation among horse people, at the moment, they posed a digression.

The way to get around Tanner's resistance was by a method of approach and retreat.

Approach. Retreat.

Approach. Retreat.

First, without the halter.  Then, with the halter.

Jen broke down the problem, stripped of all embroidery, into its component parts.

Within forty minutes, the problem was solved.

Part of it may have been my method of haltering. Jen showed me a better way to do it that is nicer for the horse.

But that was not the entire reason why Tanner had stopped tolerating my technique.  I believe it was all of the little insults that had added up, from face to ego.

Not that it matters.

Sometimes, I find that meditating on a problem is the key to advancing beyond it.

Sometimes, I simply need to accept my limitations.

Sometimes, all I want or need is empathy--a sounding board...A friend.

But last week, I had a problem that I genuinely did not want or know how to solve.  I made up meaningful excuses and explanations for the problem, but they didn't change or solve it.

There are all kind of people.  People like me start out writing a post about some small rescue horse and end up writing about terrorism or the utter pointlessness of theory without application.

And then, there are people like Jen, thank God!  Practical and brilliant, they see a problem for what it is--with or without a gilded frame.  They teach people like me, overwhelmed by my inventions, to focus on what's broken and how to fix it.










Friday, November 10, 2017

There Goes the Neighborhood


It seemed that Mary Baker Eddy was no more than an embarrassing footnote in American religious history--and nothing to do with us.

Growing up in Lynn, Massachusetts, I would pass by the Mary Baker Eddy House on Broad Street on my way to the Girls' Club, or on my way to guitar lessons at Lou Ames' on Union Street.  I must have walked past the Mary Baker Eddy house a hundred times.  It was well-preserved, with a plaque by the door, and it stood out handsomely on a wide street that reflected the city's checkered history of economic ups and downs.
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The Mary Baker Eddy House on Broad Street, Lynn



On the way to King's Beach, I passed the First Church of Christ, Scientist (see photo below) on the corner of Kings Beach Road and Lynn Shore Drive.  I liked to walk along the top of the stone perimeter wall, holding a parent's hand.

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First Church of Christ Scientist on Lynn Shore Drive
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Mary Baker Eddy House on Paradise Road, Swampscott

When I was a teenager I lived on Paradise Road, a couple blocks away from yet another Mary Baker Eddy House, also on Paradise Road (above).

I grew up surrounded by these houses, these monuments to Mary Baker Eddy.

And yet, I managed to remain almost perfectly ignorant about Mary Baker Eddy's life.

All I knew was that she had concocted some sort of kooky religion.

Despite being a feminist of the Betty Friedan generation, my mother expressed zero interest in Mary Baker Eddy.

The ever-popular Mark Twain referred to Mary Baker Eddy as "the sordid and ignorant old purloiner of that gospel."

Mary Baker Eddy was a charlatan.

It was because of her that foolish Christian Scientists refused to have their children vaccinated. Nor would they authorize surgery or blood transfusions for themselves or their dependents.

Christian Scientists simply failed to pass the reasonable person test.  They were duped. They were had. They were played.  It wasn't their fault that they were fools, of course, but it was Mary Baker Eddy's fault that they were Christian Scientists.

That was my full set of prejudices and grievances toward Mary Baker Eddy and her darned church, based on a nearly complete lack of information, and despite having spent my formative years surrounded by her homes and institutions.

In my thirties, I could walk to the resplendent Mother Church of Christian Science in Boston from where I worked on Boylston Street.

A friend took me to see its Maporium--a planetarium-like space in which we viewed the surface of the world from the inside of a globe. It was really cool.

He was the first person I ever met who didn't have a bone to pick with Mary Baker Eddy.  Image result for christian science mother church in boston

He thought that the Mother Church was beautiful and its Maporium extraordinary.  He was impressed that she had replaced the clergy with readers.

Well, all I had to go on were my inherited prejudices, so I clung to them tenaciously.  My parents were smart people, and I generally profited from parroting them.

My friend, on the other hand, thought more independently.  He was not saddled with Ivy league parents and a posh accent like I was.  He did not have to carry those weighty pretensions around like I did. His was an original and marvelous intellect; and I, if you haven't guessed, was dazzled--and constantly trying to cover up the gaping holes in my education and my inexcusable ignorance with the hand-me-down opinions of my better educated parents. And, according to them, Mary Baker Eddy was a charlatan--cool Maporium not withstanding.

I am 52 now, and I have grown up a little since then.  I finally got curious about Mary Baker Eddy.  Because I don't usually ignore loudly recurring themes in life, and looking back, I can see that Mary Baker Eddy is one that I have for years ignored completely (as is the custom).

So, I looked into her, and I made an appalling discovery:

Mary Baker Eddy was okay. 

There was nothing terribly wrong with her.

In fact, she was extraordinary.

I think it is very interesting, in a painful kind of way, that we have managed to make so very little of her.

This is where you remind me about the vaccination/surgery/blood transfusion thing...

But listen...Do you remember from books how back in the late 1800s medicine was in its fetal stage?  It was only slightly less barbaric then than it was in the days of Henry VIII.

Nothing was clean.

There was no penicillin.

Coca Cola had cocaine in it.

Medicine in the 1800s and early 1900s was abysmal, especially for people of ordinary means, but also for the wealthy.

Death was a constant presence.

That was Mary Baker Eddy's time.

She was a sickly child who grew up to be a sickly woman.

Her favorite brother died while still a young man.

Her mother died early.

Her first husband died young, while she was pregnant with their child.

They all generally died from natural causes, because medicine was really, really terrible.

Can we blame Mary Baker Eddy for wanting to fortify herself and others against such awful fragility?

She studied homeopathic remedies.

Homeopathic medicine, by the way, is still practiced throughout Europe today.  Our exchange students from France and the Czech Republic both brought homeopathic remedies with them to the US to cure ailments such as stomach aches and sore throat.

But MBE's own complaints weren't relieved by homeopathic methods, so she continued her search.

She heard about a man, a mesmerist by the name of Quimby, who used hypnotism to heal people.  She went to him as a patient, found his treatment beneficial, and asked him to teach her his methods, which he did.

Then Quimby died, and MBE lost a friend, mentor, and the only physician who had ever successfully treated her condition.

But it occurred to MBE that maybe she didn't need Quimby, after all; perhaps she could figure out how to heal herself.  Maybe she could tap into that same inner resource through prayerful meditation.

A major turning point occurred in the home on Paradise Road in Swampscott, a couple blocks away from where I used to live (across the street from C&L Liquors).  

Mary Baker Eddy had fallen on the ice and suffered a concussion. Everyone seemed to think she was going to die, but, to their amazement, she woke up the next morning feeling fine.

MBE attributed her miraculous recovery to the holy spirit through the power of prayer.

You say potato, I say potato.  One person's hypnotism is another person's power of prayer.  I don't know what the difference is; maybe there is one; maybe there isn't.

Alcoholics Anonymous is predicated on the idea that we can't recover from addiction under our own power, but must appeal to a higher power and put ourselves in the hands of that higher power; that only through the grace of a power greater than ourselves can we prevail over this disease.

This has become a widely understood, accepted, and mainstream method for dealing with addiction of all kinds.  If addiction is a disease, then I argue that the contemporary treatment for that disease is no different from what Mary Baker Eddy prescribed for all diseases.

Her error may have been in prescribing the same method for every malady.  But remember, she practiced healing before medicine had discovered the benefits of sterilizing instruments or wounds. A patient with a compound fracture may well have fared better with prayer.

MBE grew up in a strict Calvinist household. Her father was a grim, moralizing, cheerless man.  The family believed in a God that was judgmental and bureaucratic. It has already been determined that you are going to Hell and there is nothing at all that you can do about it.

Mary Baker Eddy chose to believe in a God that was merciful, compassionate, and loving.  Her God did not want people to suffer physically, emotionally, or spiritually.   To the contrary, she believed God was a source of relief from suffering. This was the basis of her theology.  Not so terrible.

At the age of 45, from that house on Broad Street in Lynn, MBE practiced healing and began teaching others the techniques that had started with Quimby and then developed into something uniquely her own.

Her followers went out into the community and healed people. They charged for their services, and they called themselves Christian scientists.  They were allowed, in the loose regulatory environment of their day, to bill themselves as medical practitioners.

This was the 1870s. Their results were probably as good as or better than traditional medical practitioners of the day.

There are mysterious methods of healing among us today.  For example, the Masterson's Method applies an extremely light, hovering touch over key points along a horse's anatomy.  The horse indicates the site of pain with a quiver, a shake of the head, or a swish of the tail.  The hand hovers over that spot; the horse's mind focuses on the target and, somehow, wondrously fixes it.  The horse's relief is indicated by a yawn or a lowering of the head.  (This is a gross simplification of the technique, but an accurate sketch of the process.)

If Mary Baker Eddy is a charlatan, perhaps we should tell the Equestrian Olympic Team to stop using the Masterson Method, regardless of the results.  It's just too damn weird.

We should also shut down Alcoholics Anonymous and its affiliates.  Nothing scientific about it.

We should ban faith healing in every form.

We should cease and desist from employing hypnotism and the placebo effect in lieu of anesthetic or nicotine patch.

We should tell those folks in Europe to stop using homeopathy, because it's silly and we don't understand how it works. Embrace the GMOs for God's sake!  It's good food and good science.  Science is never wrong.

Pharmaceutical companies have their heart in the right place.

I'm just saying.  There was nothing wrong with Mary Baker Eddy.    

A sickly child surrounded by illness and death, she discovered a way to heal herself and set to healing others.

She grew up in a religious family that feared God, and believed contrarily that God was loving and merciful. She took the clergy out of the church and replaced it with readers.

What is so loathsome about any of this, Mr. Twain, that we should not know or appreciate this woman?  









Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Cooper Report #3




I don't mind admitting when I am wrong. The trouble is, where to begin?

When I finished writing Cooper Report #2, I think I had resolved to try to get Cooper a prescription for medical marijuana....

I didn't procure that prescription, but I did do one smart thing: I called a trainer.

I needed the trainer to show me the basics of working with a beginner. I also needed her for moral support--to lean on her confidence and courage.  She is not blindly fearless when it comes to handling horses that have all kinds of issues and problems; rather, she knows how to handle these horses safely and effectively.

A display of aggression is a useful way to remind the horse who's boss. The trainer also reminded me that aggression is different from anger--there is no role or place for anger when training horses.

Later, she mentioned, as a friend, that in other areas of her life, she wasn't always as good at using aggression  effectively, the way she can with horses.  Sometimes, she finds herself backing down.

There are other areas in my life where I have less trouble being aggressive (than I do with adorable pets):

For years, I served on a local committee; and before that, as an advisor at church.  I never minded speaking up or challenging people on any subject. No one who has been on a committee with me would call me a shrinking violet.

And yet, the trainer, who has known me for almost ten years now, sees me as an utterly benign character, which she expressed less pointedly. "I've never seen you angry," she said.

"We've never been on a committee together, have we?" I didn't say that, but if I had thought of it I would have.

With horses, the rule is clear: use as little pressure as possible, but as much as necessary.

Horses correct each other through aggressive behavior, which, once they've made their point, can be followed up with a simple reminder: "You do know that this hoof is for, right?"

Case in point, it wasn't me who got Cooper to run in the round-pen, but Tanner, my Palomino. Tanner was damned if he was going to be the only horse running around in circles, so he nipped and prodded Cooper into motion, and kept him going the same way.  (I, being a sentimental fool, felt sorry for Cooper and let him out of his lesson early.)

The next time Cooper was in the round-pen, he was with the trainer and me.  We were firm and consistent.  And, thanks to Tanner, Cooper knew what he needed to do: Move his little feet!

In the round-pen, we used a whip.

I know what it feels like to get hit by this whip, because I have accidentally smacked myself in the face with it plenty of times.  It stings, sure, but it's not like getting flogged on a whaling ship at sea.  It's not skin-ripping lashes.  It startles, it delivers a sting, and it leaves a trail of disordered fur--or, in my case, a temporary red mark on my face.

In a broadly related aside, I was driving to my son's wrestling tournament yesterday, when, over the radio, a man from Sutherland Springs, Texas, said he used to feel safe because he lived in an obscure town, far from a city or any obvious target for terrorism, domestic or otherwise.

But, he said, after the shooting at his church, it became clear to him that such horrors could be visited upon anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Like, for example, at a wrestling tournament in Cross Plains, Wisconsin.

On the radio, they said that w all need to be prepared to respond in a situation where there is a shooter. We should think it through in advance, so that we're prepared to respond appropriately, should the need arise.

On the drive to Cross Plains, I thought about what I would do if I was standing near a door and a man entered the gym with a semi-automatic gun, and I had a fraction of a second in which to act appropriately.

I would stomp on his knee as hard as I could to dislocate the joint and get him down.

I thought about my elbow, and where it might make the most impact.

I thought about how much damage I could possibly do in the space it would take the shooter to turn  his gun on me.

My response would have to be instantaneous and surprising.  The shooter might assume that I was too terrified to act, and that would be my only advantage.

Was there anything that I could use as a weapon?  Keys would be good, but I don't have metal keys anymore, only a key fob in the shape of a suppository.  Advances in technology had disarmed me. (I used to walk to my car at night with a key-clawed fist.)

Arriving at the middle school, I parked the car and rifled through my purse. I found a comb with a long pointy handle that would do for a shank. As the gunner steps through the door, I would pounced on him from behind and plunge the handle of the comb into his jugular artery.

Thus armed, I entered the building with several clear plans of action.

However, I ended up sitting far from the door, perched on the bleachers in plain sight, my back against the wall.  I surveyed my options, but  could think of nothing I could do that would neutralize a shooter, short of shielding myself behind a lunch box and a felted-wool pocketbook.

With horses, (unlike maniacs with guns), I can be prepared and it won't be just vain-glorious fantasies of violently heroic feats.

As things progress with Cooper, I approach the little horse...I stand by his side, comb my fingers through his unruly mane...My heart melts, but I bear in mind that I do have an elbow, and I am not afraid to use it, should his mouth come swinging around in my direction again.

Bite mark with bruising. Lesson learned.