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Although I try not to take it personally, it seems lately that the universe has turned against me. The year that came with so many milestones – my fiftieth birthday, the 100th anniversary of the building of my house – has turned dark, jagged and bitterly cold with a hierarchy of losses to be dealt with, and body blows to absorb. My mother died, a family member is behaving badly, my sister in law is facing the second loss in her own immediate family, and my father’s grieving manifests mainly in a series of worries that break my heart and fill my days. I promised my mother that I would take care of him.

Last night, reeling from a day that started out well enough but ended on a bleak, hard note, I read that the Orionid meteor shower would peak early this morning. I read about how it would be visible from anyplace in the world, and that it was caused by earth’s passage through debris from Halley’s Comet. Centered mostly around the star Betelgeuse in Orion’s belt, the shower was likely to show us a “shooting star” about every four minutes.

I understand what is really happening during a meteor shower, but to me it has always, really, been magic. As a small child I spent hours in the back yard with my father looking at a wheeled gadget that showed what we should see in the night sky above our location at any given time. He taught me to find The North Star, The Big Dipper, Orion, The Pleiades and other stars and constellations, always telling me how it was that people thousands of years earlier had come to see the hunter Orion with his belt of stars,  or the seven sisters that comprised the Pleiades.

In August, my father, my mother, my brother and I watched the Perseids fall bright through the sky, wherever we were. Once we watched lying on our backs on a dock in Maine, turning occasionally to see the streaks of light reflected in the still surface of the lake. More often we lay in our own backyard on blankets, thrilled to be outside late at night, hearing nothing but the cicadas and the voice of someone we loved telling us to “look! There’s one right there!”

So at 1:00 this morning when I found that I couldn’t sleep, I put on my slippers and my coat and went outside to see what I could see. The house is surrounded by trees, and finding a patch of sky to monitor took some time. I could hear the college students who populate this town; many were still out, still walking in groups, still calling to one another about rides and bars and plans that stretched on into the next day. I tried to shut out the noise, tried to ignore the electrical wires and telephone wires and street lights, pleading with the universe to show me something for my troubles.

I bargained, as I often do when I am looking for sea glass on the beach: let me find just one piece, one good piece and it will be a sign and I’ll be happy and I’ll stop hunting and just enjoy the sky and the sea and the sand. Just one. The stakes were higher than they had ever been; I had never felt so strongly that I needed, irrationally, pathetically to know that the world had not really turned against me. I saw something then, maybe a streak of light beneath a heavy cloud cover, but it was not the brilliant and breathtaking spectacle I had waited for. I was cold. I was tired. I went back into the dark house and climbed into bed.

This morning I awoke while it was still dark. I remembered that the article I had read about the meteor shower said it would peak just before dawn. Again I put on my coat and slippers, and again I trundled into the dark, this time with two cats who were keenly interested in my activities. I went into the side yard, hearing nothing but the crunch of fallen leaves under my feet and the occasional soft landing of an acorn falling onto the street. I looked up through the tangle of branches and wires to see dark sky with a few bright stars. It was not the open, easy night sky of my childhood, a sky waiting to delight me with belted hunters, water dippers and breathtaking streaks of silvery light. This sky was in pieces, it required more vigilance to monitor the odd triangles of darkness between obstructions.

The sky was lightening, the stars were fading a bit, and I was not begging, bargaining or even expecting anything much. It was good to be outside in the quiet, and I thought of all the people who had watched the night sky in the history of time, and how amazing it was even to have the possibility of seeing debris from a 100-year-old comet. It was continuity. No matter what we invented, polluted, changed forever, we were still looking at the same sky that inspired the ancient Greeks to name the constellations, the same sky that’s provided a backdrop for Halley’s Comet every 75 years for millennia. The people looking up at that sky all lived, and died and suffered and rejoiced as we do. Their mothers died, their family member behaved badly, their fathers grieved, their hearts broke, and healed and broke again.

Teddy the cat was watching me from the top of the fence, looking wise and indulgent. I walked over to stroke his dear gray head and looked up to see a point of light moving rapidly across the sky.

I wanted to see more, to see some of the one-every-four-minutes that the universe owed me. I would wait, even though my neck was sore, my feet were cold, and the sky was growing lighter as I watched. Then somebody, maybe Teddy, maybe my mother, maybe my own voice said “it’s enough. It’s good enough.”

And it was.

 

 

Channeling

A couple of weeks before my mom died, I became obsessed with a television show called “Long Island Medium” about the work of a woman named Theresa Caputo. I started watching because I was fascinated by the medium, a woman who could easily have been the mother of any “Jersey Shore” cast member, and who reminded me of Carmela Soprano with her long nails, high hair and frequent use of  “Madon!” as an interjection. I was a skeptic, it was all ridiculous, and I had seen and read so many debunkings of psychics and mediums that I watched the first episodes looking for strings, tricks and manipulations.

If you go into a room filled with middle-aged people and say “someone here lost their father…” odds are that several folks will fit the bill and react in a way that makes them easy marks. Then you go on to say “there’s something about a dog,” or “he’s saying something about his car,”and it looks like you’re communicating with the Great Beyond rather than using your wits to put on a good show.

The more I watched, though, the more I came to believe that even if Caputo was not channeling anybody, she really, really believed that she was. The cynical side of me supposed that TLC could be pulling our collective chain, giving her information about the people she “read” and editing out hours of failed encounters, but the side of me open to all things spiritual and magical began to believe there was something there. I also noticed that her motley mix of angels, Catholicism, sage smudging and common sense left people feeling better, at peace about their losses, less guilty, less raw. Pragmatically, the results were so positive and created such healing that it really didn’t matter whether Caputo was talking to the dead friend, mother or child. It mattered that she had helped someone who was grieving.

Last night while I was not sleeping (which is becoming a “thing” for me) I thought about Theresa Caputo. I had no desire to have my mother “channeled,” and I wondered why it was so important to those other people and why I had no interest. My mother is dead, I loved her dearly, and it seems like I should be at least intrigued by the possibility that someone could talk to her and tell me that she was fine, watching over me, and worrying about how Obama did in last night’s debate.

I am not intrigued . Not at all.

My first thought was that many of the channellees (is that a word?) had been parted from their loved ones suddenly, particularly where the departed was a child or a young spouse. There is no more grief for those people, you can’t weigh out relative portions of grief like flour, but grief  isn’t the important variable. What’s different is a sense of wrongness, a feeling that the universe has cheated you out of something you were promised, and  had every right to expect.

I knew my mother was very sick, and in some ways it was amazing that she lived as long as she did. It was not a shock to lose her, except in the sense that it is always a shock when someone who is as essential to you as air is just…not there. It does not defy the rules we have invented for our lives if a parent dies in her 70s. Those rules are torn asunder by the death of your toddler, or a neighbor’s 18-year-old daughter. They are violated by deaths unexpected, violent, unexplained and otherwise “unfair.” I know from experience that those are the losses that puncture, persist and prevent peace, resolution, and healing. The sucker punches of death. I can see why, after such a loss, the salve of answers, reassurances and confirmation of a continued bond would go far to soothe the staggering pain of open emotional wounds.

The thing is, I don’t need anyone else to mediate a conversation with my mother. We were good, she and I; we talked every day, fought about silly things, spoke of our deepest emotions and her fears about the end of her life. I am damned lucky to have had that time, and I have almost no regrets. I suppose that if Theresa Caputo appeared by my restaurant table and told me that my mother wanted me to get my hair cut, I wouldn’t turn her away. But I’d already know.

I’d already know because I am the person who will channel my mother, because she will be in my head and informing my daily plans until my own death. She was, in life, an opinionated, sharp-witted and determined woman, a person far more assertive and confident than I have ever been. She lives on not only in my DNA but in my soul, her stronger will and optimistic spirit binding my broken parts around my weakest parts and holding me together.

I hear her, clear as day, telling me that I don’t have to do anything for anybody but my father right now. She knows so well the spinning and jiggering I do in my mind because I am only worthy if I am making other people happy all the time. She tells me, without benefit of psychic intermediary, that I am her beloved child, the insecure and anxious doppelganger of her insecure and anxious husband. That I deserve rest.  That I have to make sure he gets some rest. That it’s okay if I don’t get dressed until noon.

So maybe I believe that the Long Island Medium channels dead people, and maybe I don’t. All I know, right now, is that it’s unlikely that I will ever need or desire a third party to communicate with my mother.

We’re good.

Day Three: Denial?

It’s the third day. If my mom was Jesus, she’d be getting up right about now. That seems unlikely.

I have become uncomfortably numb. I don’t like Pink Floyd even a little bit, but that is the best description possible. I have seen “All That Jazz” enough times to know that I am in the first stage of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s model of grief response. Denial is described as follows:

“I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.”
Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of possessions and individuals that will be left behind after death. Denial can be conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts, information, or the reality of the situation. Denial is a defense mechanism and some people can become locked in this stage.

Well, I’m kind of in denial. I am preoccupied with her things, using her Chanel Lift Extreme, transferring my own wallet and keys into her yellow Dooney & Bourke. It isn’t because I want stuff, per se; had I asked her for money to buy my own Chanel and my own purse she would have given it to me. She always did. It’s about wanting her around right now. The person who always comforted me most was her, she is unavailable, and I am making do with things she touched.

I am also experiencing “heightened awareness” of people who need to be called, and particularly of my father. He ruminates about business things that need to be set in order, and I tell him again and again that it will be alright, that we can’t really do anything until the death certificate is released to us, that he should relax. After telling him to relax I pay the bills at my house, change the laundry over, clean the counters and e-mail her picture to the funeral home so that they can be sure they are cremating the right person.

Which stops me cold. And I sob. And then a shield goes up, a kind of psychological Xanax defense that blocks all thoughts of a process which was her wish, but which I find horrifying and brutal. I sit for a bit, reminding myself that a body is just a shell.  I say it to myself over and over like a mantra: a body is just a shell. It means nothing. Nothing.

Then I make myself some soup for breakfast. It’s very good; my friend Diane brought it over so I wouldn’t have to cook. Her own father died recently, and I know she gets this. Then I think about what “this” is, this grieving, this loss. I am not sure I’m doing it right. I am a person who, many years ago when I was in therapy, used to check my watch periodically to make sure I closed the session before the therapist had to say “I guess our time is up.” I didn’t want to be a bother, a babbler, a person so out of control that she lost respect for the feelings and needs of other people.

I imagine those women who keen over coffins, and I think about every movie, every book in which someone responds to a loss by losing themselves in alcohol, regret, or irresponsibility. I like that idea, the idea that I could just sink in and be with the pain for a while, lie on my couch and cry and watch movies, but the override is too strong. I think it is part of the psychological Xanax defense. This voice says “you can’t leave your dad alone all day in that empty house. You have to fold the laundry. The house has to be clean because people might come over. If you’re going to miss work you have to make sure they all know how to cover for you”

I don’t feel bad enough to stop doing these things. I don’t feel like wailing, at least not all the time. I am cocooned in a thick swathe of Stuff Doing, looking out for other people while a small part of me wants nothing more than to fall away and let other people do everything for a while. My husband does a lot, he’s a rock, I am lucky.

I am confused.

I am so freaking tired.

I think this is denial?

After Great Pain – Well, During…..

So on Friday my mother died, and of course I have feelings about that but they are still private, tender things that I prefer to hold close. I am sad, I am busy, I am overwhelmed, I wish people still brought casseroles, and I am destroyed by finding an article about a favorite writer of ours in her drawer with a Post-it that says “Annie.” Of course I am terribly worried about my father, and taking seriously my mother’s last lucid sentence to me which was “take care of your father.” Well, actually, her last words were “I’m a grown woman and I can use the bathroom by myself,” but you know, the other sentiment seems like a better thing to remember.

There are all kinds of things about faith, and literature that fill my head incessantly – “Stop All the Clocks,” “Death Be Not Proud,” “After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes,” and ideas about heaven, reincarnation, and the spirit world. As a Jew she did not believe in heaven, and as a person I don’t believe in heaven, so I’m pretty sure she isn’t sitting on a cloud in a white dress playing a harp. Because that would absolutely bore her to tears and infuriate her beyond all endurance.

Right now I think she’s around, because that poor, battered body wasn’t really her, and the canister of ashes we will eventually be offered in the hideous gold and green hush of the funeral home isn’t really her, either. The real part of her, the part that we loved, is in my hot, wet eyes and in my leaden heart and in the things I now do that she would do – like making my dad take naps and eat food. I think she sees me, and I feel her, and it’s not as good, not nearly as good as when she called me every morning, but it will have to do for now. There isn’t much of a choice.

I also know she’s here because this morning I thought to myself that I really needed lip balm because I had two sticks and I had accidentally washed one with the laundry and lost the other one. I was rifling through her 27 purses trying to find her Social Security number for the funeral home, and there, in the last one, was a brand new Crème de La Mer lip balm. Because I needed it.

Later, I opened the plastic bag of “personal effects” from the hospital and found a pair of Uggs slippers. She and I had matching pairs, bought during a wonderful day of shopping at a shoe outlet somewhere in the Florida Panhandle. My pair was lost almost immediately, and I left Florida after that trip knowing that I would never see them again.

For no particular reason other than wanting my feet to be where her feet had been, and the fact that I was wearing flip flops in October, I slid them on. They fit. They fit because they were mine, a size 9, far too large for her tiny size 6.5 feet. Apparently she had been wearing them for years, since that last trip south. Maybe she alternated between her own small slippers and my larger pair. All I know is that my feet were cold and she gave me my slippers back.

I’ll write more, some time. I might feel like it tomorrow, or I might spend tomorrow sitting on the floor of her closet and wailing. It’s hard to say, because I’ve never done this before. Right now, I’m pretty sure she’s here, looking out for my cold feet and my dry lips, in and around me as we start this new part of our relationship.

Politics on Facebook: Give Me Substance or Give Me a Break

I will not make friends with this post. I may lose some. I can live with that.

I am a Democrat. My parents were Democrats, and I was raised in an environment that favored unions, government’s duty to give a hand up to those who are struggling, and the necessity of real opportunity for all citizens. As a young adult I was “born again” into my own political beliefs, and found that I was a lefty not only by breeding but by choice. I cleave naturally to the party that supports a woman’s right to choose, reasonable control of firearms, and the idea that those of us who are most blessed have an obligation to those less fortunate. I voted for Obama, I will vote for him again, and I am proud to have him as my leader even when he takes a wrong step.

That being said, I am driven absolutely insane by the proliferation of political ugliness on Facebook. Most of my “friends,” real and imagined are also Democrats, but a handful are Republicans. Both groups contribute to the unproductive, vicious mess that I see daily. I read, appreciate and learn from thoughtful articles reposted from reliable news sources, I always read the posts by Factcheck.org, and I am respectful of honest expression of opinions from left or right. What I cannot abide are the cheap shots, the attacks on the appearance, clothing, or intelligence of a candidate or his or her spouse. The current sentiment seems to be that if one refuses to participate, to hyperventilate, and to jump on board every snarky meme that passes through the feed, one has one’s head buried in the sand.

I am married to a Conservative. He and I agree totally on the direction in which the country should move, but we disagree on the best way to make a change. He does not want poor children to be starved, he supports a woman’s right to control her body, and he believes military spending should be cut. This changes my view of this process, and makes it far more difficult to dismiss all Republicans as de facto robber barons and imbeciles. I am not going to vote for them, but I see them as human beings with passionately held beliefs that happen to differ from my own. No bitchy vitriol, no matter how clever or catchy, is going to win over anyone who is undecided, and it is even more unlikely to persuade someone to switch sides.

Serious debate is essential to the political process, as is thoughtful study and the expression of the opinions formed on the basis thereof. It is facile, cheap and dishonorable to say that Romney would make a bad leader because of his religion or his wife’s life choices. Those may be factors deserving of examination in some meaningful context, but how can we endorse the notion that a Mormon would necessarily make a terrible leader while excoriating those who believed that a Catholic JFK couldn’t be an effective President?

Here’s a story: during the primary campaigns, a story circulated on Facebook about one of Michelle Bachman’s many mistakes. It came to me from a generally reliable source, and I hit “Share.” Within thirty minutes I had received a message from a thoughtful friend directing me to the actual facts, which were significantly different from those I had endorsed. I suppose it’s possible to argue that it doesn’t matter, that Bachman was doomed to be hoist by her own petard, and that although she might not actually have made thatparticular mistake, she made plenty of others. I can’t live with that. I do not want to vote for Michelle Bachman, or even have lunch with her, but my cause, my party’s cause and the country’s cause are not advanced by lies and exaggerations intended to confuse and sway the uninformed. That, my friends, is no better than being a “Birther.” A lie is a lie, and a careless lie in the name of political expedience is beneath the dignity of anyone attempting to make real progress through politics.

I don’t have to visit Facebook until after the election; there are plenty of other uses for the hours it sucks from my life. I understand that it is the right of others to post as they please, apparently assuming that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a moron. I also understand that there are diverse opinions about the “proper” use of Facebook, and that while I use it primarily as a social outlet and crowdsourcing venue, many folks believe that it should be used mostly as a platform for the promotion of political opinions.

If I thought for one minute that sharing my political views on a daily basis, and engaging in fierce debates with conservatives would bring One Single Person to fight alongside me, I might engage. I have used Facebook to raise awareness about local, national and global issues in the past and been gratified to see people open their hearts, minds and wallets. During last night’s debate I had one friend from each party who kept up a useful and objective blow-by-blow. Both have a bias, a strong one, but their professionalism and intelligence informed their observations in such a way that the Republican could concede a point scored by Obama and the Democrat could admit Romney’s successes. It can be done.

Mostly, though what I see is that people like me are beaten to death with negative exhortations to think what we already think, and to vote as we are already planning to vote. I hate them.  I don’t care if Paul Ryan looks like Eddie Munster. I don’t approve of judging Ann Romney as a “fifties housewife” any more than I approved of judging Hilary Clinton as an aggressive ball-buster. It advances nothing, and it does not in any way move this country towards being a place where women are treated fairly, children are fed and educated adequately, and we care as much about poor families as we do about banks. What it does is appeal to people from both major parties who exchange gleeful cyber high-fives about how much smarter and more insightful they are than everyone else.

You may “unfriend” me while I find the sand bucket for my head.

 

Zachary Tennen: The Boy Who Cried Wolf

’m guessing that things were pretty tense at Zachary Tannen’s house during the high holy days this year. I feel sorry for him, but I’m kind of trying not to.

Tennen brought national attention to East Lansing, Michigan in late August of this year by alleging that he was attacked at an off-campus party by Nazi/Klan sympathizers because he was Jewish. The story interested me, particularly, because half of my family is Jewish and because I live about ten city blocks from the scene of the reported crime.

The story was horrific. Tennen arrived at the Emergency Department of a local hospital badly beaten, and told his parents and ELPD officers that he was beaten up and had a staple forced into his gum after individuals raised their hands in a Nazi salute. His jaw was broken. It seemed to be a patent hate crime here in the corn-fed wholesomeness of a Big Ten town, an un-provoked and savage attack on a physically slight and totally innocent boy. I remember the sharp sting of tears in my eyes as I read the stories, imagining my own son injured and alone, and panicky and furious at the idea that Michigan State University was home to some group of virulent anti-Semitic thugs. In the days that followed, the story was all over the internet, and locally there was talk of vigils, Facebook groups and other means of demonstrating support for the boy and his family.

Here’s the thing: it didn’t actually happen. Well, Zachary Tennen was beaten up at a party on August 26th, and his jaw was broken, but the rest of it was fiction. The story started to change a couple of weeks ago, when the County Prosecutor reported that the ELPD had interviewed more than 50 witnesses, none of whom saw anything related to Nazis, Klan sympathizers, or anti-Semitism. I will admit, dear reader, that even then when I heard that particular news, my reflexive reaction was “of course they all denied it!”

It is not paranoia that makes a Jew (or even a half-Jew like me) believe that anti-Semitism is out there. Because I don’t identify myself as ethnically or religiously Jewish, people feel free to say things in front of me ranging from the tired but offensive stuff about Jews being “good with money” to one incredible evening spent with a Holocaust denier. Anti-Semitism is out there, alive and well, and it has been (wisely) instilled in the soul of every Jew I know that if we aren’t vigilant and fierce, it can all happen again.

Sorrow for the sad, brave Jewish boy alone in an Aryan nation ended for me this morning.  Today’s “Lansing State Journal” reports that Zachary got himself beaten up because he was pursuing a young woman “whose name was redacted in the police reports,” and that he would not leave her alone when she asked him to do so, or after others warned him to back off. “After the sixth or seventh time, when Tennen reached his arm across her breasts and began rubbing her right thigh, moving his hand toward her crotch, a friend of hers punched him in the face.” Not astonishingly, Tennen’s family has written to the Prosecutor “asking that the matter be dropped,” and acknowledging that “’substantial resources were expended to investigate [the] allegations.’”

Which brings me to the end of Zachary Tennen’s story, and the beginning of my own. My first reaction after reading the real account of the beating was to post the newspaper story on Facebook and add my own editorial comments. I wanted the world to know that my town was not, in fact, a hotbed of Neo-Nazism, and I had a strong feeling that the truth should receive just as much attention as the juicy and dramatic lie had been given. It was, no pun intended, a black eye for my town, our local University and its students to let the fictional account stand in the national imagination just because it was more interesting than the truth.

As I considered posting the story on Facebook, I began to run into problems with the likely reaction to anything I could possibly say about the whole, sad mess. My visceral reaction as a mother was, honestly, to feel terribly sorry for a boy who got himself into such a deep hole of shame that he would concoct such a story. How does a nice Jewish boy, a good student, a regular at campus Hillel events tell his parents that he got beaten up because he was forcing his attentions on a woman at a party and just couldn’t stop?

But what about that woman? If I express sympathy for poor, screwed up Zachary Tennen, am I discounting the fact that some poor girl was being harassed by him, and touched against her wishes? Because the whole “if it were my kid” thing works both ways – if I had a daughter who was treated that way at a party, I would want to hit the guy myself. Honestly, I would probably be grateful to whomever it was that finally decided the only way to dispatch Zachary and his wandering hands was to punch him in the jaw, all other measures having failed. If I had a son who behaved that way towards women I would be hard pressed to blame someone who swung at him to preserve the freedom of an innocent young woman.

Then there’s that whole abusing-hate-crime-legislation-tying-up-the-police-department thing. Crying wolf about a hate crime is like mailing gold ingots to every person and organization who thinks that the “whole hate crime thing” is ridiculous and overblown. It is as abhorrent as a woman lying about a rape or a student falsely accusing an adult of molestation. It’s another brick in the wall of “______ lie about that stuff all the time,” and it undermines the cause of every real victim of a hate crime. Anti-Semitism is real, and how ironic that this Hillel-going Jewish boy should choose to lend credence to every denier by making up lies.

In the end, I just feel angry, ill-used and manipulated. I still feel sorry for the kid because I think his spectacularly poor choices have probably ruined his life. I still want to hit him again for making this town look bad, for refusing to allow young women her freedom, and for abusing legislation meant to protect real, innocent victims of hate crimes. This one’s going to leave a mark.

Saint Adderall?

In sixth grade, my bright, beautiful kid became a “problem” in school, and conferences went from unmitigated pleasure to embarrassing episodes in which we were told that he lost his papers, couldn’t pay attention, and had to be moved all over the room to avoid contact with any of his friends. Where was the second grader who was chosen to sit with the “problem child” and help him stay calm and do his work? Where was the fifth grader who was so good at technology that teachers called him all over the building to fix their computers and set up the sound system for assemblies? When did the fault line open between that sweet-natured, compliant little boy and The Bad Ass of Sixth Grade?

It didn’t get better. His test scores were still very, very high, but school was a disaster. Teachers who bothered to get to know him found him likeable, but couldn’t get around the fact that he just didn’t seem to do any work. His backpack was filled with crumpled handouts and notes from his friends, and his locker looked like the aftermath of a pipe bomb. We e-mailed teachers, we set limits, we nagged, we organized and re-organized and I went to school and attended classes with him. A good and compassionate teacher offered to help him get his homework done even after their official classroom relationship had ended. Multiple opinions were offered: “he’s just an adolescent,” “this will pass,” “you need to set limits,” “he’s bored,” “school just isn’t his thing,” and my very least favorite, “you should have him tested for ADD.”

Here’s the thing. There was clearly something wrong, but it was muddled in my own mind. I’m no teacher-basher, having been raised by teachers, but starting in sixth grade there were some issues that were beyond Sam’s control. His sixth grade teachers were ready to retire, a little jaded and bitter, and angry at the fifth grade teacher who had allowed Sam to move freely through the building fixing computers, overhead projectors and sound systems. They clamped down, really making a statement to the world about the laxity of the fifth grade teacher, but Sam was collateral damage.  Suddenly everything he had been allowed, encouraged and thanked for doing was off limits. Some teachers still asked for his help, and when he went to another classroom to provide that help, he was “in trouble” and sent to the office. The principal, a woman concerned primarily with the condition of her hair and nails, never figured out or solved the adult war being played out on our son’s hide; she just threw up her well-manicured hands and agreed that he was “a problem.”

In seventh grade there was the science teacher who notoriously disliked boys (in my experience she was not fond of humans of any variety). We were warned, before the year started, that her shtick was iron rule, no flexibility, and no tolerance for 12-year-old boy stuff. She and Sam were a bad match, and by the middle of the year we were receiving reports from other parents that their children were shocked at how badly Sam was treated in science class. The problem was that Sam was not doing his work, and was not doing well in any of his classes. We didn’t have a leg to stand on. You can ask a teacher not to abuse your child if you are the parent of a fresh-faced innocent, but what if your child has become a Problem, and is not holding up his end of the social contract? The answer is that you do what we did, which was to explain over and over to Sam that there were always going to be teachers, and bosses who were irrational and negative, and that one simply needed to buck up and do the work. He didn’t.

He didn’t do it in eighth grade, either. By last year, his freshman year in high school, I saw no future for him other than that of a very intelligent McDonald’s fry cook. He could function in a couple of classes with very organized and motivated teachers, but budget cuts in the district resulted in a History teacher who was a music teacher who could neither teach history nor control the class, and an English teacher who was a football coach who was similarly disinterested in teaching English. There were behavior issues, Sam skipped classes, and a good day was a day when we didn’t get a call from the school. Sam lived in a state of perpetual anxiety; he knew he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing, but the way he explained it to us, he just couldn’t make himself care. He could fix any problem on a computer, he could negotiate Byzantine Craigslist schemes to get himself anything he needed or wanted, but he could not do an algebra worksheet. We punished, we begged, we took away privileges, and possessions and fawned over every success to no avail. There was failure. There was summer school.

Finally, in shame and despair, we had him evaluated for ADD. I know it exists, but I had my own baggage after working for years as a Social Security lawyer. Parents had brought in their small children seeking benefits based on their ADD and ADHD; often it was patently clear to me that the issue was terrible parenting and an unsupportive home environment. “Those people,” I would say judgmentally, “are willing to put a label on their child for their whole school career just because they want a monthly check and something to blame for their bad parenting skills. They are blaming schools and teachers because they have raised disrespectful, undisciplined children.” I had become “those people.” I also watched the movie “Thumbsucker,” which paints a picture of ADD medication as something that drastically alters personality, creating ultra-focused and high achieving zombies who are chemically separated from their actual personalities.

Our doctor explained that there have always been patient, dogged focusers, the prehistoric ancestors capable of tracking a rabbit for hours in order to make sure there was food. She said there had also always been those easily distracted by the flash of a white deer tail in the woods, people who would abandon the tracking of the rabbit for the chance at a much greater score. The world, she explained, needs both the diligent plodders and the distracted darters; sometimes the distracted folk find or create amazing things that no plodder would ever imagine. Sometimes they catch a deer instead of a rabbit, and they eat for days. School, however, is designed to accommodate and award the rabbit stalkers – the diligent, the focused, the calm and the biddable. ADD medication would help Sam to be a rabbit stalker during school hours, but when he didn’t take it he would still be his impulsive, creative self. We filled the prescription.

The good news, the GREAT news from where I’m sitting, is that Sam is a different person this year, partly because he’s growing up, but largely because of the daily dose of Adderall. His notebooks are tidy, he knows what’s going on in every class, he does his homework, he asks for help when he needs it, and I just saw a 20/20 on the outline for an English paper. He is focused, he is using his fine mind, and he is, I believe, comfortable in his own skin because he’s doing his job and doing it well. He has a great group of teachers, he likes them, and so far they seem to like him back. When he broke his right wrist longboarding last week, his first concern was that he would not be able to use that hand to do the computation necessary for Physics and Geometry. The fault line has closed, and the intelligent, ambitious little boy I lost after fifth grade has come back as a pretty impressive young man.

The bad news is that I keep wondering why we had so very little help or compassion for so many years. Sam can’t be the only boy who ever became an unmanageable squirrel when the hormones kicked in, the only kid who is not wired to sit still and fill in blanks on a ditto. I was always taught by my-parents-the-teachers that the job of an educator is to take each student as they are, and work to find a way that they can learn. I can understand that in a district walloped by poverty, rural or urban, that the prospect of differentiating for each student can be daunting. I understand about growing class sizes, shrinking budgets, and the michigoss of perpetual standardized testing – I really, really do. I would have expected, though, that in a district comprised largely of highly motivated, upper middle class students that we might have had some help, that more than two teachers in four years would have made an effort to see anything good in our kid, and try to engage him on his own terms. Last year, when I was contacting teachers to work with them to get Sam on track, two of them would not return an e-mail. I could not, as I had been advised, get from them a syllabus and an extra text book so that I could work with him at home. I could not get an e-mail.

So Sam’s okay, and I’m pretty confident that he will more than make up for The Lost Years. The Adderall helps him focus, and, honestly, to be more compliant. If he had started taking it in sixth grade, he would no doubt have been less easily distracted, and maybe been less stung by the post hoc criminalization of the “Head Techie” job that had kept him occupied and made him feel important. He would have been easier for the awful 7th grade science teacher, and not made waves. We would have known that he wasn’t being taught well, in many cases, but we would have known that his rear end was in his seat and that he was following the rules. He would have been a successful and diligent student, catching his daily rabbit.

Why, though, in a district more “8th Grade College Night” than “Girl Fight in the Bathroom” is a kid’s worth determined not by his intelligence, his imagination or his character, but by his compliance and ability to color inside the lines?

I’m not sorry that we got Sam “better living through chemistry” because I love him, and it makes his life easier and helps him get where he needs to go in life. It helps him to function well in the only system currently available.  I’ve got to say, though, that I’m imagining a world in which we recognize the kinetic potential in a crazy-smart deer chaser, and don’t have to turn him into a rabbit tracker to insure his survival or success.

Beauty is More Than Skin Deep: Why Don’t I Believe That?

First, let me acknowledge that this post is totally inspired by a piece on Huffington Post by Jane Devin, author of the memoir Elephant Girl: A Human Story. She makes the case that it is unhealthy and unhelpful to insist that girls and women are (physically) “beautiful” regardless of their outward appearance. According to Devin, reassuring someone she’s “beautiful” when she knows, and society tells her that she is not, does nothing but reinforce the notion that physical beauty is the most important thing in the world. A girl who is teased at school because of her looks is, as Devin points out, often comforted with assurances that she is beautiful, and that the mean people just don’t see how beautiful she is. This response, taken at face value, does nothing to change the perception that being pretty is the real prize in life.

There is much real loveliness, dare I say “beauty” to be found in damaged, unconventionally attractive places. We can love the broken plate, since mended, because it has sentimental value. We can prefer the strange looking mutt with the height of a Dachshund and the face of a Pug because its very oddness and vulnerability evokes a protective emotional response. We can look on the face of a loved one who is not conventionally, physically attractive and find them genuinely, incredibly and stunningly beautiful because we know them. We care not a whit about acne, beer belly, under bite or lantern jaw because what we value is internal.

We find our children, our spouses, our family and friends to be beautiful as a matter of fact, but what if they aren’t, in the objective sense? What ifwe aren’t? We all know that in the great world there are standards for what is “beautiful,” and that while some of them vary by culture or decade, there will always be a place at the table for a girl or woman with clear skin, regularly spaced features, and glossy hair.

I grew up resolutely un-physically beautiful in a place where a very high value was placed on physical beauty. I heard people criticized by adults and children alike because they were fat, un-stylish, crooked of tooth or irregular of feature. Although my parents always told me I was beautiful, because I was their beloved child and they really saw beauty in me, I internalized the messages I received from the greater world. I knew that I was beautiful to my parents because they loved me, but that I was not a girl who would draw someone’s eye at a dance. All of the niceness, the carefulness, the well-meaning bucking up in the universe could not overcome what I knew to be true: it was good to be beautiful, and I was not.

Every time I was told that I was “beautiful,” and to ignore the labels like “thunder thighs” and “pizza face,” it contributed to the sense that I had to overcome not only my lack of beauty, but my selfish refusal to buy into the pleas to recognize my own beautifulness.  I felt ungrateful because I could not go into the world feeling like some radiant being whose inner beauty would shine from every pore and reel in the superficial infidels.

You can and should raise children not to be cruel about the non-beauty of others, but I don’t honestly think it’s possible to override every cultural and biological imperative. People are attracted to beauty, and the standards of beauty in our society are set largely by the media. While I admire the efforts to include larger models in magazines, I will say that when I see a woman my size in an editorial spread, I immediately notice her as the “token,” and find her less attractive than the “normal” models. It may be self-hatred, I may need therapy, but I live in this world and I have been taught the same lesson as every other woman living here with me.

The thing that needs to be done, as Devin points out, is to make it okaynot to be physically beautiful, instead of telling women they are when they aren’t. Physical beauty needs to be put in its place in a pantheon of highly desirable attributes that are unevenly distributed among humankind.

Why not tell a girl that she is brilliant, that you admire her compassion towards others, or that she always makes you laugh no matter how bad things are?  Why not explain that she will be able to attract the best kind of friends and lovers because they will get to know her and see beauty that can’t be shown in a magazine spread? Why can’t we say “you’re right.  You don’t look like Taylor Swift, but that’s totally okay because not many people look like Taylor Swift. And the ones that do may have an easier time getting people to like them, but it often has nothing to do with their real selves. And even though she’s beautiful on the outside, Taylor Swift still has problems with boys and they aren’t always nice to her.” Why can’t we be honest with our children from the beginning, and teach them that there are all kinds of beauty, and that the physical kind is easiest to see and admire, but no better than kindness, generosity, intelligence, honor, or wit?

I write this and know that it’s too late for me. I have regular “I’m ugly and I hate myself” fits. If my mother, my husband or my best friend responded by saying “you’re right, you aren’t conventionally beautiful, but your wit and goodness make you shine” I would be furious. I want to drink the Koolaid; I want to hear about what parts of me look good, not about my inner wonderfulness. I take all that internal stuff for granted; I’ve always had it. I’ve never been admired for my looks.

It’s too late for me, but there’s plenty of time to teach our children that physical beauty is just one of the things that counts as “beautiful” in this world. It is undeniably pleasant to look at someone or something that attracts us with its surface, and that is unlikely ever to change. It is equally pleasant, though, to be in the company of a friend who understands us completely, or to live with someone who lets us shout out “Jeopardy” answers or makes us laugh. It’s all beauty, and we should be raising women who are proud, confident and resilient no matter what they look like.

Then we could stop lying about it, and supporting the perception that nothing really matters besides the way our outsides look to strangers.

St. Sebastian

As a child, long before I turned my attention to tragic heroines and their male counterparts, I was drawn to mortal injury and related suffering. There is no explanation for the deep and satisfying emotions I got from the pictures I hunted in my father’s Professorial Library; I suspect it is the same dark, human impulse that draws people to jars of embalmed fetuses and preserved tattoos skinned from intriguingly inked corpses.

I had, at my disposal, hundreds of beautiful images in the art books that lived in our house. Sixteenth century Flemish Madonnas offering apple-like breasts to blonde baby Jesuses (Jesi?), pages and pages of Botticelli seraphim, Watteau confections,  DaVinci drawings, Magritte and Dali oddities and Picasso in all his various incarnations. Because my father taught about art, and because we often saw art “in situ,” I was unfazed by the parade of breasts, fleshy pink thighs and penises of varying sizes. I was only vaguely interested in the evolution of vanishing point perspective, abstract vs. representational, or the finer points of bas relief, fresco or chiaroscuro. What I liked was the intense, the dramatic, and the emotional. Anyone could whip out a random body part, but getting shot full of arrows was an altogether superior thrill.

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Which brings me to my childhood favorite, St. Sebastian.  In a lovely Hyperion volume of 14th and 15th Century Italian paintings,  I found Mantegna’s painting of Sebastian smack in the middle of his martyrdom. Ordered by Diocletian to be shot to death, Sebastian managed to survive, was killed again more efficiently, and eventually canonized. I loved everything about the painting. I loved it that he looked so sad, that his skin was so very pale, and that (even at seven or eight) I knew that there would really be a lot more blood if someone had been shot with eight arrows. It spoke to me of something dark and supernatural, magical even. I had no religious training, no concept of saints or martyrs, and my responses to iconography were both honest and macabre.


“Daddy,” I said one night before bed, “why did they do this? Was he bad?”

“No,” my father answered, doing that sucking thing he did with a pipe to make it light. “He was a martyr.” I kind of knew the word; it was what my mother called my father when he was driving to her parents’ house in Ohio even though it was snowing. “Catholics believe that certain people who die because of their religious beliefs can become saints.” I knew some things about saints; his mother was Catholic, and had given me a book about St. Francis. She also carried a St. Christopher medal, although I believe St. Christopher was subsequently de-mobbed. I knew about St. Patrick’s Day, and that Santa was really “Saint Nick,” and lots of places were called Saint Something-or-other.

“But why did they want to kill him in the first place? What did he do?”

“He was a Christian at a time when lots of people didn’t like Christians, and he made a powerful person very angry, so he was given a choice of saying he wasn’t really Christian, or being killed. He chose to be killed.”

“But that’s stupid!” He drew, meditatively on his pipe.

“I’m inclined to agree with you about that, but there are millions of people who think otherwise. They think that dying for your religious beliefs means you really believe them and trust that you will be taken care of in heaven.”

“Do you think that?”

“No, but your Grammie does. Some people do, and some people don’t. I think there are causes worth standing up for, and maybe dying for, but for me that isn’t one of them.”

“Is it for Momma?” I asked, tracing a small finger over Sebastian’s right leg, pierced with an arrow in the same way I had been taught to draw an arrow piercing a Valentine heart. That was another one – Saint Valentine. “Is it for me?”

“It isn’t for your mother, because Jewish people don’t have any saints. They tend to be hurt and killed because of what they believe, but a lot of times it isn’t because they choose to take a stand, it’s because people are prejudiced against them. You know about Hitler, right?” I nodded, somber. We had discussed Hitler at great length because of an episode of “Star Trek.” I also understood, in some impressionistic way that a lot of my mother’s ancestors had come to America from Russia and Hungary because Very Bad Things were happening to them just because they were Jewish.

“As for you, I don’t know. Momma and I won’t tell you to do anything like that because it isn’t what we believe, but some day when you’re grown up you might find that you believe in something you find for yourself.” This seemed reasonable, safe, and sufficiently distant that I didn’t need to worry about it. “Isn’t it time you went to bed?” It was. Carefully, I flipped the tissue-thin protective page back over St. Sebastian’s lovely, tragic face and replaced the book on the shelf. I was not always so careful, but my father, he of the “handle the slide by the edges,” “handle the record by the edges,” was sitting right there watching me. I knew he loved me even when I threw the records on top of each other so that they got scratched, but why take unnecessary chances?

Soon I would discover other soul-piercing images to savor; the American Heritage volume with the picture of Lincoln dying in his bed, Titian’s “Entombment,” El Greco’s “Lamentation” and Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” I knew little about Lincoln’s assassination, and less about the crucifixion of Christ, but the frozen moments of pain, longing, loss and unimaginable grief spoke volumes.

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When my father retired, he gave away a lot of books. Although the Hyperion volume was not really from his office, and was therefore not properly part of the bounty, he placed it on top of the pile of books I had chosen. “I seem to remember,” he said, pausing as if drawing on the pipe he had given up forty years ago “that this was a particular favorite of yours.”

Sometimes, when I feel as lost and misunderstood as poor, pale, Sebastian tied to a column, I open the book and visit him. I try not to cry on him. It’s an expensive book.

Every now and then, turning carefully the pages that long ago parted ways with the binding, I swear that I smell pipe tobacco.

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Photo Credits:

St. Sebastian: hhttp://arttattler.com/archivemantegna.html

Lincoln: http://www.myspace.com/lincolncollection/photos/2438168

Titian: http://www.metabunker.dk/?p=1919

El Greco: http://www.catholictradition.org/Galleries/life-christ.htm

Michelangelo: http://escape-artists.com/2009/11/michelangelos-pieta/

Tragic Heroine

A literary agent once told me that, although my pieces about my life were well-written and interesting, she could never sell a memoir because I “had no hook.” Again and again she asked me about my life. I answered honestly, and in her e-mails I could see the regretful shake of her head. I was raised by parents married (to each other) for fifty years, no one abused alcohol, heroin, me or my brother, and we did not survive a single natural disaster or part ways with a religious cult. My trials, such as they are, are relatively normal in the annals of human history: insecurity, romantic difficulties, garden variety anxiety, hangnails, aging parents, icky jobs and the unexpected but unspectacular losses that characterize any life fully lived.

Despite the vanilla pudding that is my story, I have always lived a rich inner life in which I am a tragic heroine. Tonight I watched “La Vie en Rose,” a movie about the life of singer Edith Piaf. I was drawn like a stolid, gray moth to a throbbing blue-red flame. I have never been abandoned by my parents, had to sing on the streets for money, or loved a married man who died in a plane crash, but it was my story. Some dark, empty place inside me resonated with every blow, every sob, every self-destructive act. I was embarrassed to find, as the credits rolled, that I was still sitting frumpily on my couch wearing athletic pants and a T-shirt. Really, in the parts of me that are important and alive, I was sitting on a park bench in Paris writing to the man I loved, telling him that I knew he would never leave his wife and children, but that I would sacrifice everything for whatever time he could give me. I was singing “Je Ne Regrette Rien” on stage, my heart breaking with the knowledge that it was my last concert. I was damaged, tragic, and fascinating.

Piaf was not the gateway drug. In middle school I listened endlessly to Don Mclean’s “Starry, Starry Night,” a spear of poignancy. I was drawn to artists who suffered: Schumann who threw himself off a bridge and died later in a mental institution, and Virginia Woolf who walked into the water with her pockets full of rocks. In my worst moments I thought about them as if probing a hole where a tooth once was; I was, as Keats wrote, “half in love with easeful Death.” The sane part of me, though, that practical super ego, was  worried about upsetting my parents, so I kept my secret fascination to myself.

In high school I discovered Sylvia Plath. I read and re-read every word written by or about her. I knew about every suicide attempt, the frantic spurts of writing that characterized the depths of her despair, the handsome Ted Hughes and his cruel betrayal, and the end – her head in a London oven. I loved the poems, the short stories and The Bell Jar, but my love for her craft was magnified and polished by her beauty, her mental illness, and the inevitability of her suicide. There was something about being so crazy that you came unmoored…that you could do serious damage and hurt people and become the burning center of attention because you couldn’t help it. There was no issue of Personal Responsibility, Maturity or Getting Over Oneself if you were Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton; if anything, you were more valuable by virtue of sharp edges, broken places and a perpetual whirl of drama. One could, apparently, just let go and stop worrying about what every damned other person in the world thought, and what would happen to them.

There were others, real and fictional. I was thrilled by Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, Ophelia and The French Lieutenant’s Woman as they broke rules, acted out and left a swath of pain across polite European society. They were mad with love, or just plain mad, and they lived passionately, hurtling towards tragedy without stopping to do laundry, pay bills or think about anyone else. I saw “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” before I read Fowles’ novel, and for days as I walked across my snow-covered  college campus I imagined myself in a black, hooded cloak, flushed with madness over my seduction and abandonment, so far from the plodding rules of society that I could do anything to ease my pain. Meryl Streep’s character would not have sat in the counseling office telling a stranger in a Fair Isle sweater that she got really anxious sometimes. She would not try to get herself together to avoid upsetting her roommate or her parents. 

Later, I was sucked in by Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. Although whinier and more self-indulgent than the clean burning fuel of Plath’s brief, bright arc, her balls-out insanity attracted me. She actually did all of the crazy things that I wanted to do, at about the same time I wanted to do them, on the other side of the Charles River. She got on the plane and flew across the country to see the guy who wouldn’t answer her phone calls. She drank too much, got involved indiscriminately and then apologized to everyone she had hurt. She screamed at people, she burned bridges, and she woke up in strange places only to have some espresso and whip up an article for “Rolling Stone.” She couldn’t help it, she was sick, she was an artiste, she was acting on impulse, damning the torpedoes, creating memoir-worthy scenes and living on the razor’s edge. I was doing what I was supposed to do, unable to risk a reign of terror more significant than a solo crying jag in my apartment.

It is, in the final analysis, good to be relatively sane, to be considerate of the feelings of others, and to be able to conform to the basic rules of society. The drama in my life is confined to passive-aggressive Facebook statuses and the odd snarky remark at a City Council meeting. I’ve been good, I have left most boats un-rocked, and objectively I know that I have done right. The “I can’t help it” excuse for passionate excess is really only valid if one really can’t help it; clearly I can.

Sometimes, though, like tonight, I let myself walk that dark corridor towards the things I would do uncensored, wild, and quite mad. I become a fascinating woman in my imaginings, the jagged bright splinters of my psyche reflecting the light that burns at the very center of my being. I am an artiste, uncontrollable by social convention and hurtling towards a tragic finale.

Beneath the laundry, the volunteering and the sensible flats is a woman with a hell of a “hook.” Maybe it’s enough that I know she’s there.