Monday, January 30, 2017

A Personal Politics Aside

Throughout the day, I keep looking at my phone and scanning the news (NYT, BBC, Le Monde, FB). Unavoidably, I read the same stories in various iterations over and over. I have taken up the habit of triangulating information among different sources--checking them against each other, verifying, and wanting to know just how fat our ass looks from a global perspective.

Pretty damn fat.

But mostly, I keep hoping that it's over, and Trump and Bannon (and Pence too, but I'd settle for Trump and Bannon) have been found guilty, impeached, and disgraced (though I'd settle for just impeached in both houses).

I want this ghastly fun-house ride to end.

I ran into a friend the other day whom I enjoy and like. She told me, in the course of conversation, that she had voted for Trump--which wouldn't be SO bad, (bad, but not SO bad), if she acknowledged that it had been a mistake. But instead, she said that she hoped he would bring about change. And she was hopeful that he would do a good job, all evidence to the contrary not withstanding.

She's not one of the "forgotten" unemployed Americans who lost good manufacturing jobs that went overseas. She has her own business. She has a Masters degree. She's not someone I would ever have pictured at a Trump rally. She's not one of those quirky, intellectually disordered Libertarian types whom I come across now and then out here in the Midwest.

I have another friend who, during the election, expressed (on FB) a shocking amount of vitriol toward Hillary Clinton. She may have voted for Trump, but to me the first appalling thing (not in a judging way, though there is that, but in a deeply disturbing way) was the venom and hate that she directed toward Hillary.

She wasn't the only person I knew who didn't like Hillary (to put it mildly), but I was disappointed that she was on that bandwagon--which, in my opinion, represented (and will always represent) a mysogynistic perspective that I never would have imagined her having.

During the Christmas season, I posted on FB that I felt grateful to those of my friends on FB who hadn't un-friended me despite our political differences, especially because I am tediously explicit about my opinions on FB, generally using FB as a soapbox (unlike my blog!).

But the longer this fun-house ride goes on, the less grateful to those friends I feel.

Sometimes, when I am disgusted and horrified by the racist, sexist, lying, etc., etc. that is our fat, pimply, hairy ass hanging out of the White House for the world to see, I get it in my mind to go on an un-friending rampage.

I mean, when I find myself on the same side of the ethical divide as a Koch brother (who yesterday expressed moral outrage over Trump's executive order concerning the ban on citizens of certain Muslim countries from entering the U.S.), I realize that our country is trespassing against moral values on such a basic level that even the left hand of the devil himself is morally offended.

I know that I would always like these women in any other context. I would be drawn to their laughter and sparkle. I would enjoy talking with them about anything other than politics (which, not surprisingly, I guess we never talked about). I would find them lovable. But now, with both Jane Fonda and a Koch brother standing at my side, and beginning to feel like a hostage in my own country, I don't know if I can or should be friends with people who don't recognize the terrible, horrible bind we're all in and what is at stake.

Of course, it's always tempting to lash out at somebody from a place of well-fed disappointment and rage. But to do it by pressing a button and "unfriending" them does not seem particularly brave or even satisfying, when what I really want to do is "unpresident" someone, along with all his henchmen.

Should I try to understand how my friends and I happen to be standing so far apart from one other as  Rome crumbles?

Could I possibly influence them more by keeping them close, despite abundant evidence of my complete lack of influence over them heretofore?

Do I have the energy to even try to convert them?  Does their conversion even matter anymore?

Or is my personal disavowal (however cryptic and discrete) a necessary gesture--is that the gauntlet that I'm supposed to retrieve?

I don't know. The whole business is heartbreaking from every angle. And though it has only been what, two weeks?, it feels like the start of a long, dark epoch.

I keep hoping it won't go on for much longer. I keep looking at my phone, reading the news, looking for the headline that will tell me it's over.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Dear Mr. Cook: Make a ResistBit ASAP

Dear Mr. Cook:

I don't need a FitBit because I shovel manure all day (seems like) (literally), but what I do need asap is a ResistBit.  If it isn't already in development, it should be.

Here's what I need it to do:

  • Track my protest actions
    • Tell me how close I am to meeting my action goals, how many more actions I need to meet my monthly/weekly/daily quota, etc.
    • Provide action effectiveness feedback (e.g., scored 1-10, with one being an FB comment and 10 saving democracy)
    • Suggest ways to improve every resistance action (e.g., "Next time, coordinate your efforts with local activists...and bring an umbrella.")
  • Organize my resistance contacts network
  • Provide Tinder-like associations among the resistance in my vicinity
  • Alert me to actions taking place in my vicinity 
  • IMPORTANT: The ResistBit needs to be securely encrypted!
  • Track my blood pressure and alert me when I need to stop thinking/reading/talking about politics before I have a stroke. 
    • In the event of a blood-pressure spike, immediately direct me to photos of cute animals and episodes of "Madame Secretary."
    • Alert me if I am drinking/smoking/eating/sleeping excessively. 
      • Organize an intervention if it gets really bad.
    • Put me on support-response lists so I can help my friends and family, too. 
  • Track the petitions I sign, and present new ones in order of priority
  • Track and budget how much I donate to every branch of resistance
    • When I am about to spend money frivolously, remind me that I could be putting that money to better use
    • Prioritize my giving according to immediacy of need
    • Field and respond to phone and email appeals accordingly
  • Provide timely and accurate political news updates 
    • Triage coverage of POTUS to stridently avoid over-exposure 
  • Notify me of commercial interests (restaurants, department stores, etc.) that are non-toxic and Pro-Resistance, so I can give them my money--
    • Likewise, alert me to toxic commercial interests so I don't give them my money
    • Notify me of any toxic investments or credit cards I may have, and show me the easiest way to divest from them
  • Keep up my morale. 
    • Make sure I'm aware of every victory of the resistance everywhere, however small. 
    • Inspire me with music, poetry, and quotes. 
    • Download books I should read and videos I should watch.
    • Remind me to call my friends and tell them I love them.
    • Always be optimistic.
Please hurry. Thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Jessica Barmack

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

We Rise

It was easy enough to buy plane tickets to the Women's March in Washington, DC, and I was fortunate enough to have friends and family who would see to my lodging and meals.

It was very hard to leave my house.

My husband, bless his heart, said, "Go to Washington, I support you!"

But of course, I was the one who arranged for someone to care for the horses and dogs in the middle of my husband's work day; I figured out where my son would go when he got out of school at 3:15 and I wasn't there to pick him up....

And then one of the (5) cats got terribly sick, like she was going to die. She was a young cat, not yet three years old, and of course, she was one of our favorites. We should have named her Busy, because she's always busy investigating things. She makes me think I should look in the dryer one more time before pressing the Start button to make sure she didn't sneak in there.

But we didn't name her Busy, we named her Cuddles, and we call her Medium Fuzz.

By Sunday it had become obvious that she couldn't hold down food, so I took her to the emergency veterinary hospital where they X-rayed her abdomen for a possible obstruction. By Tuesday, we were at our local vet's, and we still didn't know what was wrong with her. We were re-inflating her daily with subcutaneous fluids. She wouldn't touch food, and hadn't eaten since Sunday morning, when she threw up.  The vet sent us home with anti-nausea meds, anti-pain meds, antacid meds, appetite enhancement meds, prednisone, and everything we needed to re-inflate her daily with subcutaneous fluids.

It was a lot to carry.

At home, I wrapped her up in a towel like a burrito so she couldn't scratch me as I pried her stubborn little jaws open and popped tiny pieces of drugs (a quarter of this, a half of that) down her throat one at a time.

There were a lot of them.

My right pointer finger got stabbed and pierced by her needle-like incisors. (It started to swell--my finger. I feared the onset of cellulitis.)

I was sure MedFuzz had swallowed, but she spit the life-saving drug out, and I picked it up, or got a new one, adjusted the burrito, and tried again.

This when on for some time.

By Wednesday morning, exactly 24 hours before I was scheduled to drive to the airport, MedFuzz  was acting more like her busy self. I fed her, and she ate!

The prednisone worked!  I knew it would. I have great faith in prednisone. It had cured one of our other cats, Big Fuzz, of another indeterminate yet lethal disease.

But something smelled very funky. It reminded me of the veterinary hospital--of animal anxiety, medical chemistry, and the full complement of hastily sanitized spills and drippings.

I wasn't terribly surprised that my house smelled like this.

But then again, it was awfully pungent.

Yup. Now, my patient had uncontrollable diarrhea which she had already smeared over most of the house.

I eyeballed the bag of subcutaneous fluid application supplies hanging from a kitchen cupboard.

I knew it was too much to ask...

Somewhere in an comprehensive etiquette book, it says: Diarrhea or subcutaneous fluid injections; never both.

I felt sheepish when I called to explain that I wouldn't be going to Washington. I was pretty sure my mother would have packed that cat up then and there and surrendered her to the Great Beyond.

But I just wasn't ready to give up on her yet.

Maybe she would never successfully digest anything again.

Or, maybe she was just leaking, like a water balloon, which she had effectively become.

I set up the dog crate with a litter box and a soft towel for a bed. I put MedFuzz in it. Then I went about cleaning up the house.

Whether or not I would go to Washington depended on two things: Whether, at the end of the day, there was a reasonably solid poop in that litter box; and whether, at the end of the day, MedFuzz was able to keep her bottom clean (I had already washed it off once).

I said to myself, this is beyond my control. Whether I go or I don't, that's up to God. Or the cat. Or the prednisone. But definitely out of my hands.

That evening, not only was her bottom clean and her poop solid, she no longer required subcutaneous fluids.

MedFuzz was completely able to nourish her young and curious body without mishap.

It was like a miracle. Not like when the sun came out on Trump's inauguration day just in time for  his speech, because that didn't actually happen.

MedFuzz's solid poop actually happened.

I had to wonder about the stories of all those other women extricating themselves from their lives to gather en masse on Washington to champion Equality for All.

My sick-cat story couldn't have been the worst. It probably wouldn't be in the top 10 percent of personal conflicts and sacrifice.

And I was lucky, as I said, to be able to fly to DC and have a place to stay. Tens of thousands of women took overnight buses on Friday, arrived on Saturday morning, championed Equality for All, then filed back onto the busses and drove all night back home.

(If I were You-Know-Who, I'd shit myself.)

Apparently, hundreds of thousand of women (and men--there were lots of men there, too) will stop what they're doing, make all kinds of complicated arrangements to see to the care of the ones in their charge, forfeit their comfort and convenience, and haul ass half-way or all the way across this beloved country to gather in defiance and unity.

 It meant so much more to me than I could have ever imagined. It raised my spirits and renewed my strength--knowing we can do this--all of us together--on such short notice--with so much devotion and love and caring about the world and each other...

We can gather such an army of warrior women from every corner of the earth.

And you know what else?  People brought transparent backpacks. We read the directions on the Women's March website. We brought small bags, snacks, water bottles. (500,000+ women left Washington DC cleaner than they found it.)

We didn't bring normal, opaque backpacks, because we were told that we wouldn't be allowed to bring them into the gathering/marching area.

You know what was really surprising?  No one checked our bags. No one. There was no one checking bags. There were people directing us to go this way or that, but there were no security check points, like at the airport.

Frankly, I could have been packing heat. (Honestly, I wasn't.)

It was as if Trump said, Whatever! Screw them. If there's an incident, that's their problem.

I got a little nervous, encapsulated in that immense crowd, keenly aware that we constituted a very large and very soft target.

What if a concussion grenade went off (as had so many on K Street on Inauguration Day)?  Would there be a stampede? Would people be trampled?

What if a gun was fired...?

How could I not think about these things?  There had been tear gas and concussion grenades the day before, young men in an agony of tear gas exposure, sick and temporarily blind, smearing white stuff on their faces (was that baking soda?).

Nothing happened. It was peaceful. A vast army of peace.

People seemed to feel genuine concern for one another. Strangers smiled at strangers and talked to one another like friends.

(I saw people wearing cheese-head hats--we high-fived.)

There was a tolerance for ideological  differences--but then, practically everyone was wearing a "pussy hat," (including some men), so...that brought us ideologically closer.

The Women's Protest Army (it wasn't called that--it wasn't really an army at all--not yet--but these are alternative facts) was way, WAY bigger than the number of people who turned out for the Inauguration (not counting protesters).

Across the world, millions of women dropped what they were doing (arranged for child care, used their limited PTO time or did not get paid, rode all night on buses...)

And in the final analysis, what does it mean?

It means we can very quickly become an enormous army of peace all over the world.

It means our voices are heard.

It means we care about each other. We're looking out for one another.

It means hope.

It means we are committed.

We are united.

We are strong.

We are powerful.

We are on fire.

We rise.

Monday, January 16, 2017


Ladies, it's not enough to "Like" an anti-Trump post on Facebook!

It's not enough to sign an anti-Trump petition on Facebook!

It's not enough to give money to an anti-Trump organization on Facebook!

It's not enough to post anti-Trump slogans on Facebook!

Or to post incisive anti-Trump articles on your Facebook page.

Or to read or write rants on Pantsuit Nation.

It's not enough to text or message other women about politics. That's not activism.

It's not enough to recount the vote. It's too late! You're wasting your time!

It's not enough to call politicians to complain about something you read in some stupid post on Facebook.

It's not enough to get a New York Times app, or a BBC app.

It's not enough to march in the streets.

It's not enough to fly to Washington D.C. to march in protest.

It's not enough to ride overnight on a bus to Washington with sixty other women to march in protest!

It's not enough to take time away from work, home, kids, dogs to buy a ticket, to organize other women, to pack a water bottle and granola bars; to buy your Metro pass in advance; to find an Airbnb in Washington; to meet up with friends and family from all over the country; to dress in layers, to wear a money belt, to have extra phone chargers on hand....

It's not enough to be a white woman, you have to be black!

It's not enough to be black, you have to be a woman!

It's not enough to be anti-Trump.

It's not enough to believe Black Lives Matter.

It's not about immigration. It's not about equality. It's not about justice.

And it's not enough to be concerned.

White women will not show up.

Black women feel left out.

It's all for nothing.

Nothing you do is right. Nothing you do is real. Nothing you do matters.

Nothing that makes you feel safe is good enough. Nothing that makes you feel connected connects you.

Fake news is real.  Real news is fake.

You don't matter. Nothing you do matters.


East Coast People (Good Eggs)

Last month, my book club read one of those books where everyone looks at me and says, Are people really like that on the East Coast?

Books we have read in that genre include: The Nest (Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney), Happiness Project (Gretchen Rubin), I Feel Bad About My Neck (Nora Ephron), and Just Kids, by Patti Smith.

Since I am the only one in the club from the East Coast, I can say anything I want about East Coast people--my opinion goes unchecked--a thing that would never happen on the East Coast!

I do what I can to counter the impression that we are all crazy, self-absorbed, entitled, smug, dramatic, pretentious, and weird.

But for some reason, they're not buying it.

My first and last defense is always self-deprecating humor, without which East Coast People would be insufferable to people in the Midwest.

It's not always enough.

I've written about how tough it is to raise a family near Boston or New York. Back East, we spent much more money and time; our commute was three times longer... Such burdens are ubiquitous back east...Except among the very wealthy.

But even the wealthy don't feel wealthy. Only the very very wealthy are light on their feet.

Everyone else is running on credit, running on fumes, living check to check, buying lottery tickets, imagining what life would be like if they didn't have to worry about money.

Cities like New York and Boston (and Paris and London) prey on consumers like drug dealers prey on junkies.

Imagine living in a constant state of want (not need, but want), your mouth perpetually watering...Yes, your mouth, but not just your mouth....

Ingeniously eye-catching commercialism surrounds you; it evokes hunger, lust, and envy--even though it feels innocent enough to enjoy the thrill and beauty of it--the iconic spectacle of Times Square, the nostalgia of Macy's, the glamour of Saks Fifth Avenue, the naked allure of the Apple store, restaurants and taxis, buffets on every corner that display more exotic delights than you could have ever imagined assembled in one place.

It warps the mind. Even if you made $250,000 in New York, you couldn't begin to quench that thirst.

There's more of the human condition, of art, of the divine and inspired in New York than the indictment above might suggest.

I've lived long enough to see the pendulum swing (in New York) from high rates of poverty and crime when artists could afford  Soho (less so Greenwich Village) and Chelsea was still the meat-packing district; to a richer more antiseptic city full of chain stores--Starbucks, Finagle a Bagel and Pret a Porter on every corner where there used to be delis, bookstores and ma & pa shops.

(Remember bookstores?)

Soho became Boho became Chelsea became Park Slope (in Brooklyn, no less!).

I digress. It has been a few years since I've been to New York, and the skyline has already changed radically.

Chicago is a great city, also expensive--yet somehow, not pretentious.

It's true. I don't know how that works. Maybe it's the efficient train system supporting the surrounding communities that keeps it real.

Maybe it's the scale of a Chicago block--modeled, you would think, on a country mile.

Whereas New York scrapes the sky with monolithic architecture like a city of crystals grown tall and pointy, Chicago's more massive, with a low center of gravity--like its people.

Beneath Chicago, high-rises rest on pylons in muck, an engineering marvel of building on a swamp...through funds sourced from processing plants--pork bellies, cattle, the rendering of livestock for dog food and glue.

So perhaps that's why the people of Chicago are less thin and stylish, less pretentious as it goes; literally or figuratively, their gleaming city is anchored in the soft matter of life and death.

Practical people built this city--the sons and daughters of farmers. Even the favorite fallen adopted son Frank Lloyd Wright sprang from a farm in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Nothing in Chicago is too precious for rendering--even that glamourous star, the Sears Tower, has taken the name of her most recent husband (Willis!).

Everything they say about East Coast People is true. No matter how long I live in the Midwest, I will always be East Coast.

What I dislike about East Coast People (don't get me started, I'm trying to end) I really dislike in myself.

Midwesterners don't always try to be so clever. They seem to have nothing to prove, and all of the time in the world. I have to pace myself in conversation. I have to learn to say less and remain alert.

And they're not neurotic here, at least not in the same way, as we are back East.

But, sometimes, I will admit, I do miss the eggs*.

*In reference to the joke by Woody Allen from Annie Hall:

Doctor, my grandfather thinks he's a chicken!
That's terrible! Why don't you bring him into my office?
I would, but we need the eggs!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Basset Hound Mother

I read Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother recently, for my book club. It's about the author's relationships with her daughters--in particular, her parenting style, which she refers to as "Chinese Tiger Mother."

I would never have read it of my own choosing. I had heard that the mother in this book was severely demanding of her daughters--Draconian, by American standards; even...crazy. It was unclear to me why the book was published at all, except as the latest entry in the category of "unimaginably grim childhood,"(along with A Child Named It and Room).

But I liked it! I thought Amy Chua made some very astute observations about how discipline breaks down from generation to generation: The first generation to arrive in America is motivated to labor and sacrifice for the hopes and betterment of the next generation.  The "next generation," saddled with the guilt of their parents' sweat and sacrifice, toils in the classroom (or in service or business...) to make the most of the opportunities afforded to them.

It's true! My grandfathers both had Ph.d.s. My parents both have Masters degrees. I have a Bachelors degree, I think. (I never actually received it in the mail, but I'm sure I earned the credits.) And I have some kind of publishing certificate from a long-deceased institution.

At this rate, my son will graduate from high school, maybe, and if he's lucky, he'll pick up a certificate from the back of a cereal box.

Amy Chua didn't want that for her daughters, so she raised them the same way that her Chinese immigrant parents raised her--i.e., to be a super achiever.

One daughter plays violin, the other plays piano. They both practice two or three hours a day. They're expected to get all A's. An A-minus is a failure and a disgrace.

They're expected to haul laundry and carry their own luggage, so they can develop some vague sense of what real physical labor entails (laundry and luggage).

They don't have time to go to dances or sleepovers. They don't have friends to the house, because they're always practicing or studying.

They keep their rooms clean.

Amy Chua's girls outdistance all of their peers in everything, becoming prodigies and virtuosos.

But it doesn't all go perfectly. Some of her tiger mother technique backfires spectacularly, threatening to shred the fabric of the entire family.

But that just makes Amy Chua more human and likable. As rigid as she can be as a parent, her perspective is unflinchingly clear, honest, and full of good humor--which you wouldn't necessarily expect from a Chinese Tiger Mother.

The book spoke to me. It inspired me to reassess my parenting style and implement some groundbreaking changes.

In some respects (narrowly defined), I was already off to a good start.

My son, an only child, was already taking lessons on three different instruments. (Yeah, you're impressed!) It's because he's sentimental. He tries one, and he just can't bear to give it up. And then he tries another...And before you know it, there are three.

The first new rule was that he has to practice piano and cello a minimum of four times a week. AND he absolutely must practice each instrument for a MINIMUM of fifteen minutes per session--up from three minutes per session.

You do the math--it's a 500% amplification over the previous regime.

So, we've got that going.

Next: He is not allowed to play X-box before he has finished all of his homework and practiced piano or cello.  This was in put into effect immediately after I read the book.

We have since slipped. Josh MUST commence homework by six p.m.

This held for a while, but gradually morphed into Josh eating at six p.m. before retiring to the bathroom for 45 minutes, after which time he is REALLY ready to launch into homework.

Amy Chua makes an excellent point in saying that it is harder to be a Tiger Mother than to be a typical contemporary (what animal would I be?) Basset Hound Mother.

It's true! It's a lot of work to enforce all of that policy.

I'm not at all sure I have the motivation or attention span or patience to oversee the quality of my son's work, to check that his homework is always turned in and his cello is always in tune. (I only have a Bachelors degree myself; it wasn't difficult to come by--I don't have it with me right now.)

I listen to him play piano, and I can tell when he's improvising (That's not Tchaikovsky! ...Is it?) I yell at him from the other room.

I don't know a damn thing about cello, except that I like it--any note, any string, I don't care what you do to the cello, it sounds awesome.

I admire Amy Chua for her dedication--I really do. But I am also comforted by the fact that it didn't go entirely according to plan with one of her daughters.

I mean, from Amy Chua's perspective, the catastrophe was accepting her straight-A daughter having an A-minus attitude toward violin, and grudgingly allowing her to have a social life. But let's embrace that as a true catastrophe, and conclude that one daughter was horribly damaged and the other not so much.

Because that would mean my son has a 50/50 chance of surviving his Basset Hound Mother's parenting style, which is, I'll admit, long on good intentions, but short of leg.