Sarah R. Callender

Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Sister

In General on January 20, 2017 at 9:32 am

An Open Letter to a Working Class White Woman

Dear Woman,

I don’t know who you voted for, but data suggests you voted for Trump. Data suggests that I, living in the blue-leaning bubble of Seattle, darkened the Hillary circle on my ballot. But none of that matters. The election is over. I truly hope the next four years will abound in American Greatness, but I don’t know what that will look like or how we will get there. I certainly don’t know how we can get there together.

Because I don’t know you.

True, we’re white women, you and I. We are mothers and daughters, aunts and sisters, grandmothers and granddaughters. We were both raised in dysfunctional families by imperfect parents, grandparents and caregivers. We, you and I, want love, stability and success, however that may be defined. We both care about our children and will fiercely defend them, sometimes to a fault. We want access to quality education and meaningful work where we can earn a decent salary. Regardless of whether you and I plant ourselves in church pews on Sundays, we both do our best to love our neighbors. We value loyalty and nature and family. Both you and I are still heartbroken by September 11th. We are both horrified by elementary school shootings. We both wish we had more vacation time. You and I observe our own bodies, amazed, as our knees creak, our tushes sag, and our hands resemble the hands of our mothers and grandmothers. We both like to laugh and feel beautiful. Sometimes we wish we were more beautiful. We both hate feeling misunderstood.

But we don’t see those similarities because we don’t ever cross paths. How would we? Why would we? Just the idea of it tires me. Where would we meet up? What would we talk about? And after a single, uncomfortable conversation over a cup of coffee or an ice cream cone, what would happen next?

Anyway, it’s much easier and more fun to focus on our perceived differences. We urban bubble-dwellers think you don’t care about helping others. You think we liberals don’t care about Constitutional rights, Made-in-America or the beauty of sweating on the job. We see you as drinkers of cheap beer. You see us as sippers of four dollar lattes. We think you don’t want anything to do with immigrants. You think we don’t want anything to do with white working class people.

On that last assumption, you may be right. But I don’t want you to be right.

So here I am: A former high school teacher, I now am a self-employed writer. I have two children, and most days, I feel ill-equipped to parent as well as I wish I could. I love God, and I struggle every day to be what He calls me to be. I have a loving and imperfect marriage. I curse too often. Guns scare me, though I have no interest in taking yours away. I worry about my kids’ future, and I worry about cancer, and I worry about how technology is changing us into people who are uncomfortable connecting in authentic ways. I love my dog. I love democracy. I love nachos with that bright orange cheese. I love America.

You might love, value, question and fear those things too. I don’t know you, but I’d like to.

Hillary Clinton, the candidate I voted for, called you deplorable. Others have called you ignorant. Some have called you stupid, foolish, naïve, gullible. Those words come from a place of fear. Those words are not OK.

I am fearful too. I worry about how the next four years, and years beyond, will impact those who live lives more fragile than my own. But you are not deplorable. You are not stupid or ignorant, naïve or gullible. You are my sister.

And I’d like to get to know you.

Sincerely,

A Middle Class White Woman

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Explanation

In General on September 20, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Hello faithful readers,

Thank you for your recent patience. This summer I forced myself to focus on my fiction (so I could finish Book #2) and now, as my reward, I get to return to Inside-out Underpants. I’m both excited and hopeful that you’ll forgive the lapse in posts.

I do have a post percolating (about spider webs and fruit flies and mental illness–three things I’ve got going on in my yard/kitchen/brain), that I’ll share once it’s all prettied up. Oh, and incidentally, I just did a Google search for “fruit fly,” hoping there would be a cute photo of a cute little fruit fly to include in my note to you, but I now understand that sometimes Love means not showing your readers a fruit fly photo.

On the fiction front, my agent will start submitting Book #2 in October (i.e. she will start pitching it to editors with the hope that they will purchase and publish it), and gosh, how I love my agent . . . talk about patient and faithful!

I’m hopeful I’ll have some happy news to share, about either Book #1 and/or #2, sometime soon, hopefully before the fruit flies carry me off to the loony bin.

In the mean time, happy autumn to you all.

Talk soon,

sarah

PS–I welcome any fruit fly remedies.

 

 

 

Rogue

In General, Writing on December 7, 2012 at 6:20 am

Hello dear readers,

Today I have the pleasure of blogging at Writer Unboxed. Follow me, and I’ll explain what happens when a sexy carpet cleaning gentleman knocks on the door of a lonely housewife, plus some other stuff about how it can be tricky to put a label on art. And, we’ll conclude with a learning lesson about how mocking someone almost always comes back to bite you in the arse. Just click here!

Of course, this photo will make more sense after you have read the post. (Incidentally my carpet cleaning friend is the guy on the left.)

Rogue-Saints-Christian-Movie-Christian-Film-DVD-Blu-ray

Hot

In General, Writing on November 6, 2012 at 6:53 am

Oh, how I love a man who reads!

This fetish, however, wasn’t always so pronounced. When I was just a wee high school lass for example, I liked butts. A guy with a nice arse. In fact, as I type, I am remembering two particular arses that earned much of my attention, focus that might have been better spent on studying British poetry or dissecting a frog heart or memorizing African geography. Useful stuff.

And as I sit here typing, twenty-five years later, still not totally clear on African geography, I wonder . . . have the ravages of time somehow spared those two particularly fine specimens of male tush? I know not.

(I also know not why I just wrote a sentence with Shakespearean diction. But I’m going to go with it.)

As I have aged, of course, I realize that a nice arse can only take a man so far, that other attributes are slightly more important in a male mate.

Kindness. Sense of humor. A solid faith. He thinks I am funny. He doesn’t mind that I wear the weirdest conglomeration of clothing as pajamas. Forgiveness. He doesn’t get mad when I park too close to one side of the garage, thereby forcing his 6’4″ self to scrunch up in order to exit the passenger side of the car. More forgiveness. I’m not a good house cleaner. Willingness to attend Sound of Music sing-alongs.

My college beau loved to read, yet literarily, he was nearly impossible to please. This was, in fact, also hot. He would get so easily fired up about all the things he disliked about a piece of fiction, voicing astute opinions about narrative structure and character, finding strands of plot that were gratuitous or just plain silly.

Of course, now that I am a writer, his discriminating taste is not hot. It’s terrifying. I imagine him raking my writing, my novel over the coals, just as he did with all manner of canonical literature. Just as he still does when we (as we are among the lucky ones who are able to be friends) chat about the books we read.

When I met Husbandio on a blind date, I fell for him the moment he uttered this sentence: “I’m learning Russian, Sarah, because I thought it would be cool to read Dostoevsky in Russian.” 

He then proceeded to talk about books he had loved . . . Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Tolstoy and Chekhov.

Wouldst that someone might hie ye hither to retrieve the fire extinguisher! Post Haste!

Of course, a few years into our marriage, I realized that his hot, first date monologue had been, well, not a lie or a ruse. Not even an exaggeration to get me to go out with him again. He didn’t (yet) realize that he was to be my betrothed, my sweet-breathed Romeo. As I would be his dear Juliet.

On that first date, as he shared his literary dreams, he just thought we were chatting. You know, about things and stuff.

Not me, man. HE WANTED TO READ DOSTOEVSKY IN RUSSIAN. He loved The English Patient.

Thoughts of arses flew by the wayside! Arses mattered not even a jot! What, after all, is a nice arse when compared to a passion for literature?

And, Husbandio’s Dostoevsky dreams were truthful. In college, he had read and loved those novels. In the early years of our marriage, he did study Russian with older, thick-waisted women named Irina. They were all named Irina. And they were all thick-waisted. And they were all about as cheery and encouraging as you, dear reader, might imagine.

Still, he stuck with it because, darn it, he really did want to read Dostoevsky in Russian.

His “passion” for fiction, however, might have been a little exaggerated.

Maybe he wanted to impress me, on that first date, in those first years of marriage. Or, maybe when you are single, as he clearly was when he walked into my marriage snare, you believe you will always have time to dream and read and study languages that require knowledge of an entirely different alphabet.

Of course, that’s not the case. Work becomes more consuming. Young children ingest your free time as if it were cotton candy. Things like reading and shaving your legs and knitting sweaters fall by the wayside. Life gets very busy.

Therefore, for a lot of years, Husbandio read very little fiction. Sure, I forced him to read The Great Gatsby. I captured him and his attention whilst on lengthy road trips, popping in a book on CD while we drove.  But when he had time to read, he mostly picked up non-fiction. And non-fiction, as you likely know, is only vaguely hot.

A man out for a walk with his chocolate lab puppy has the same hotness as a guy reading a novel from the Man Booker short list. 

A man reading non-fiction? That’s like a man taking a walk with his cockatiel on his shoulder.

(Not that he’s not hot; he’s just a little more pirate-y than I can handle.)

But just this summer, fourteen years into our marriage, something miraculous transpired, something to make me realize that First Date Husbandio is still alive and well.

Husbandio started to read fiction again. Five or six books since the summer.

He’s like this guy, but with books instead of hot dogs.

It’s a change that makes me wonder why a fiction-reading man is so attractive. Do I prefer a man who prefers to reside, for brief periods of time, in a fictional world? Do I just like being with someone who loves reading as much as I do? And why doesn’t non-fiction have the same hubba hubba effect on me?

Alack and alas, I know not the answers to any of those questions, be that I am a mere, muddle-headed pigwort of a wife.

I only know that this morning, I put Husbandio on a plane to Atlanta with a fresh novel in his backpack. Ha-cha-cha-cha-cha!

Pirate-parrot guy photo courtesy of Flickr’s mnassal’s photostream.

Hot dog eating guy photo courtesy of Flickr’s Space Pirate Queen.

Tsunami

In Faith, General, Parenting on September 9, 2012 at 8:41 am

Anatomy of the School Emergency Kit

Sweetie, do you know what I dread each September? The assembly of your emergency kit.

I know it seems silly; after all, the contents are simple, basic things I have lying around the house. But maybe, perhaps in the year 2045, you will be a forty-year-old woman with a seven-year-old daughter for whom you have to pack an emergency kit. Then my dear, you will understand how those simple, basic items placed in a labeled Ziplock can take your overly-imaginative brain to terrible places.

Here. Let me show you.

The first item on your school emergency kit list: Juice box/beverage (the school has some emergency water). 

The school has “some emergency water”? Meaning what, exactly? One gallon per kid? One Dixie cup per kid? If the school’s not going to be specific, Sweetie, you get two juice boxes. Drink up. Or, share with a thirsty friend. It’s a scientific fact that generosity will distract you from the earthquake that has just flattened everything but (apparently) your 62-year-old school.

Next? Granola/cereal bar/cracker package/rice cakes. Dried fruit/trail mix raisins.

I slip four granola bars into your Ziplock, going back and forth and finally adding the granola bars with the almonds—a cardinal sin, I know, to bring tree nuts onto campus. But when that tsunami hits Seattle, and I cannot reach you, I want you to have some protein. Sure, I could give you a can of black beans and a can opener and a spork, but a can of black beans–even if it’s organic–will not say I Love You or I Will Get to You As Soon As I Possibly Can like a tree-nut-filled granola bar.

So four granola bars. And a handful of Hershey’s Kisses that needs no explanation or apology.

This year, I will also include a bottle of bright pink nail polish in your emergency kit. Was this the “Small comfort item (optional)” the school had in mind? Likely no.

Will it irritate your teacher? Perhaps.

But obviously, Sweetie, you cannot bring your brother (your favorite comfort item), and the Ziplock bag is too small to fit Phantie, the pink elephant(ie) with whom you have slept every night of your 2465 days.

I figure you and your brave classmates might get bored, sequestered in the classroom for 37 hours after terrorists bomb Seattle. So when inevitable tedium strikes, take turns painting each other’s nails a pink so bright and cheerful that you think of sundresses and sorbet and strawberries, not the reason you are stuck in a classroom with “some” water and your dear teacher who is reading Enemy Pie and The Adventures of Taxi Dog and Freckle Juice by flashlight, wishing he were home, safe, with his wife and daughter.

Pair of socks for hands or feet.

Socks for hands? When you were in preschool, it wasn’t as hard to imagine your little hands wearing a pair of socks after a natural or man-made disaster.

But you are nearly eight, Sweetie, and it’s heartbreaking to picture you, at this age, curled up in the dark, without your Phantie, lying beside your manicured classmates and fearless-on-the-surface teacher, wearing socks on your tender hands.

And let’s be honest. Nine times out of ten you pull a pair of socks on your feet and then wail, “But these don’t feeeeeeel right!” If socks never feel right on your feet, how on earth would socks possibly feel right on your hands?

Still, I add a pair of socks to the Ziplock bag. If all the other kids are wearing socks on their hands, I don’t want you to feel left out.

Which brings me to the tricky one. Note/Photo from home.

You know my friend, Rachel? She refuses to write the annual Emergency Kit Letter. She claims it’s simply too upsetting.

With most things, Rachel is peace and calm personified. Not when it comes to writing an emergency kit letter to her boys, not when she knows she might not be alive when they read it. A letter under those circumstances is a whole different ballgame.

I agree with Rachel. It’s terrible to write that letter. But I don’t want you, Sweetie, to wonder why there was no handwritten note tucked into your Ziplock. Had I been too busy? Too forgetful? Did I accidentally put both your letter and your brother’s letter into his Emergency Kit, just like I sometimes accidentally pack two desserts in your lunchbox or two chocolate milks in his?

A little girl with socks on her hands, listening to her teacher read Judy Blume by flashlight, shouldn’t have to wonder and worry why her note from home is missing.

That said, it’s an impossible note to write. I want to tell you everything will be OK, that I’ll be there in just a couple of minutes, that we’ll go out for ice cream afterward. I want to tell you that the biological warfare that has paralyzed NE Seattle isn’t dangerous enough to keep me from reaching you. I want to tell you that no quake or tsunami can separate us. That the massive meteor miraculously hit that big, already-empty hole in the ground that was going to be a new Trader Joe’s (what luck!), and I’ll be at the school ASAP.

But these might be lies. And I don’t want you to think this after reading my letter: You, Mom, Were So Full of Shit.

After some thought, I write this:

Sweetie. We love you so much! Daddy and I are missing you right now, but we know you are being so brave. Are you painting your fingers and toes with the nail polish? Make sure you paint your friends’ fingernails too. (And no, you do not have to wear the socks on your hands if they will smudge your nail polish.) Oh, we can’t wait to see you! Love and big hugs and kisses!

Mom and Dad 

Next? Small flashlight and Solar blanket (optional).

Do I add them to the Ziplock? You bet. The solar blanket might be handy, should the earth’s rotation slow, causing a dark chill to fall over NE Seattle.

Does a solar blanket require the sun to warm a little girl’s body? Who knows! Will a flashlight only cast eerie shadows in an otherwise darkened classroom? Who cares! Light begets hope. Hope begets warmth, with or without a solar blanket.

Packet of Tissues and Index card with emergency contact information, health needs, etc. Those I add with no problem.

I seal up that Ziplock, write Sweetie Callender, Room 26 on the bag with a Sharpie, and I say a prayer that you will never have to read my letter, carefully crafted with loopholes and almost-lies.

I say a prayer that this Ziplock will come home with you on the last day of school, still holding those almost-expired granola bars and optional solar blanket and tacky nail polish, a color I would never let you wear unless meteors or 9.0 quakes or tsunamis were in the day’s forecast.

I say a prayer that I can use the exact same letter next year. Each year.

Because I agree with Rachel. Some letters are just too hard, just too anxious-making, to rewrite every single September.

Hero

In General on August 9, 2012 at 6:50 am

Care to follow me over to my post on Writer Unboxed? This particular post is for anyone who reads (i.e. you). Come on over. . . it’ll be fun, and you may just end up a hero.

 

Rules

In General, Parenting on August 2, 2012 at 6:39 am

Sweetie is 7.7 years old, but for years, she has been an expert at making up games with rules that make no sense, rules that change constantly during the duration of the game, rules that seem, to the rest of us, improbable and inconsistent and highly irritating.

Last week, for example, Buddy was down with a fever. Housebound for two days, Sweetie was not interested in Yahtzee or Sleeping Queens or Sorry or Whunu or Quirkle. She wanted to make up her own game.

“Mom,” Buddy (age 9.2) whispered. “I don’t ever understand her games.”

I patted his leg. “Me neither, Bud. Me neither.”

Meanwhile, he and I could hear Sweetie puttering downstairs, whistling her trademark whistle that she does when she’s most happy.

“It’s a little like Twister!” she called up to us, “but with Pick-upSticks. And some yoga. Buddy, you get to be the spinner.”

Buddy rolled his eyes. “Oh, great.”

What followed (which is exactly what always follows during one of Sweetie’s games) was the most bizarre and difficult and confusing game I’ve played since the last time I played one of Sweetie’s games.

You know how certain things (me in a maxi dress; Husbandio with a perm; Romney in the Oval Office) should never go together? That goes for Twister! and Pick-up Sticks and yoga.

Buddy, even while ill, was able to summon dramatic sighs and moans that mimicked the sighs and moans I was doing in my head.

He flopped on the floor, a look of anguish on his face. “Sweeeeeeetie,” he moaned, “this game doesn’t many annnny sense.”

“Yes it does,” she chirped. “You just need to do what I’m telling you to do. Then it will make sense.”

I’ve been thinking about those words a lot since. And while I’m no shrink, I bet a kid like Sweetie (i.e. a less traditional kid who doesn’t mind butting against societal mores, via hairstyles and fashion, on a daily basis) thrives when for once she can make up the rules. Rules that, sure, seem arbitrary and unnecessary and tedious to others, but that make sense to her.

A few weeks ago, she asked if she could use the green Halloween hair dye and attend Circus Arts Camp with green hair.

“Nope,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Why not?”

She didn’t whine or get upset. She just asked, “Why not?” in a way that made me realize she just wanted to understand why not. And as I thought it over, I didn’t really have a good answer. It was summer. The hair dye was temporary. Green is her favorite color. She was attending Circus Arts camp. There are plenty of Seattle parents who allow their kids to do far weirder things.

I could see why she was standing there, wondering ‘why not’? because I was wondering why not. Why is there some sort of unwritten rule about why a kid who loves color and loves standing out, fashion-wise, can’t have green stripes in her hair?

So I sprayed green stripes in her hair.

The more I think about it, the more Sweetie’s desire to foist her seemingly-weird rules on her parents and brother seem to be a form of payback. Payback for my rules, but also payback for the world’s rules, rules that in her mind, are a hundred times less sensible and logical than any rules she could create.

Why can her brother, age nine, take off his shirt and run around at the park when she, at age seven, is too old to do so?

Why can grownups dye their hair (“boring” colors in her POV) while kids can’t add a little color to their own locks?

Why can some people get married while others can’t?

Why is it OK to have dessert after dinner but not after breakfast?

All good questions. Questions for which I don’t have any good answers other than, “Because I said so.” Or “Because I am your mother.” Or “Because that’s just the way the world is.”

Do I want to teach my children that they have to follow rules even when the rules don’t seem grounded in safety or logic? Yes, part of me does. I don’t really want a kid with green hair. I don’t want Sweetie running around outside topless. I don’t want to send her off to school with a belly full of toast and ice cream. But you see? Those are all my issues, not Sweetie’s.

So while I am doing downward dog, with right foot on red and left hand on blue, waiting for Buddy to “spin” the Pick-up Sticks and do some sort of mathematical calculation that only Sweetie knows how to do, in order for me to know where to put my left foot and right hand, I am thinking that Sweetie is basking in the knowledge that for once, she gets to be in charge of the rules.

And that must feel pretty good.

Photograph courtesy of Flickrs’ Wrote.

Story

In General on May 14, 2012 at 6:40 am

Sometimes I like to crack myself up by making things talk that don’t normally talk. A while back for example, I wrote a post in which I shared the photo of the little man-faced berry that Husbandio grew in our yard.

I’m telling you, that little man-berry was hysterical, with his high-pitched British accent, just a tad whiny. Like David Sedaris, only British. Nigel Sedaris.

I like to make our cats talk too, especially the compulsive overeater one, in kind of a Samuel L. Jackson way. “Gimme the sandwich, ya dum &!**$#, or Sweetie-kid gets cut.”

Of course, it’s not only cats and man-faced berries that provide me entertainment. Sometimes it’s snapdragons or heirloom tomatoes. Other times, during warm weather when shorts reveal a bit more leg, I like to make the fat on my knees talk. Postpartum belly fat works well, too, for pretend conversations, though I find watching one’s belly fat tell jokes is more sad than funny. And isn’t there already enough sadness in the world?

The best, though, has got to be Cornish game hens, what with their legs that appear to be wearing jodhpurs. If you ever have the good fortune of cooking a Cornish game hen for dinner, save yourself a few extra minutes to have that hen do a little dance, perhaps a brief vaudeville routine. At least very least, have him walk about his cutting board stage and share a few jokes with you and the cats. Have him do the Macarena, perhaps, or the Electric Slide.

Why do I do this? I can only imagine it’s related to my love of writing fiction. I get such a kick out of pumping voice and personality into things that are otherwise lifeless.

Take that little man-faced berry; did he get teased as a kid? Did he consider surgery to remove his . . . face . . . so he’d look more . . . faceless? What about the Cornish game hen? Is it not possible that his whole life he yearned to be on the stage, but instead, he had parents who made him pursue a degree in Economics? And what about belly fat . . . can you imagine the nostalgia of a postpartum belly, longing for the days of yore?

I’m working on a blog post for a writers’ blog, and in doing so, I have been thinking quite a lot about story. Why do we read stories? Why do crazies like me choose to spend years and years penning the stories of people who never lived? What about the stories of others is so interesting, so compelling?

Of course, story provides entertainment and escape. But there’s more to it. I know there is.

Right now, I am reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. And I can’t put it down. Yes, there are parts that are irritating and meandering and, if I may be so bold, may have been cuttable. There are other parts that seem a little “this happened, then this happened, then this happened.”

But the other day I realized it’s precisely that meandering, cuttable detail, that makes the story so deeply satisfying. Through that detail, I see myself in the female character’s story. I also see that the characters who on the surface are not at all like me, have a layered richness that makes me realize we are, in fact, not so far apart. That we all long for the same things (love, acceptance, understanding) and will act both stupidly and, occasionally, wisely, in order to get those things.

What would happen to our planet if we had a better understanding of the stories of others? If we could better understand what makes a person who she is, why a person says the things she does, who a person wanted to become, but for whatever reason, was unable? What could happen to our planet?

It seems to me, when we have a better sense of a stranger’s humanness, we tend to treat that stranger with a little more compassion and a lot less fear. More compassion and less fear? Holy schmokes, can you imagine what that would do for our world?

A few weeks ago, there was a very angry lady ahead of me in line at the drug store. She was already huffing and puffing about how long the line had been, how long she had had to wait, how she was already running late, when she realized she had forgotten something.

“Don’t help her!” she yelled, pointing at me, the next person in line. “I’m late for work!” And she hurried off to find whatever it was she had forgotten.

The cashier and I smiled nervously at each other, waiting, waiting, waiting for the lady to return. Finally, the cashier grimaced. “I guess I can help you . . . do you think she’ll yell at me?”

“Nah,” I said, putting my Preparation H and bottle of Riesling on the conveyor belt. “And if she does, I’ll defend you. I’m a lot tougher than I look. A lot tougher.”

Well. When that angry lady returned with her forgotten item (a purple UW Husky t-shirt), she went absolutely nuts. “I TOLD you not to help anyone else!” she yelled. “I TOLD you I was late for work! Now I’m going to be miss my bus!” Then she pointed at me. “You didn’t have to DO that!”

(A bit about me and my sense of justice: I am usually fairly happy to admit when I am wrong. I am also somewhat happy to be yelled at when I have done something wrong. BUT when I am yelled at because someone else is having a bad day and when a perfectly nice-albeit-timid cashier is yelled at for keeping the line of customers moving? I am not OK with that. Not one bit OK.)

But I had just been to bible study. And going to bible study reminds me that we are all total messes who, for the most part, are just doing the best we can. This angry lady included.

So I went for it.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, getting a little closer to the yelling woman. “It sounds like you are really having a hard day. And now you’re going to be late for work? That’s really stressful.”

That’s what my mouth was saying, but make no mistake, my brain was thinking exactly what most brains would be thinking: if you, lady, were so worried about getting to work, then maybe you shouldn’t have spent all that time picking out a UW t-shirt. And why did you need a UW t-shirt, anyway? I can’t really see why you’d need that ugly t-shirt when you knew—

“You want to hear about stress?” she hollered at me. “My boss is going to yell at me, and I got robbed this week and they took $200 cash and my car won’t start . . .”

I nodded, taking my bag from the cashier. “Jeez, what a terrible week. I’m so sorry.”

I stood there, trying to absorb some of the angry woman’s anger before it hit the cashier. After all my tough girl talk, I had not done a very good job at shielding her from this woman’s wrath.

While the checker rang up her items, she raged on, detailing the other bits of terribleness in her week, something about her cousin being sick or maybe her uncle, and apparently the Seattle police weren’t at all helpful after her burglary. I stood a few yards away, nodding all the while, a look of sympathy on my face. It wasn’t hard to feel sympathy. This woman was a hot mess.

But as she continued, the volume of her anger became lower. As she finally spun herself out (while the cashier bagged up her all-important t-shirt), the yelling woman reminded me, her voice stern, “Still, you shouldn’t have gone in front of me.”

“OK,” I said, biting the inside of my cheeks, hoping to release the juice of kindness and compassion into my words. “I really hope your day gets better!”

As I started my car, I saw her walking in the opposite direction of the bus stop. And something weird happened: I wanted to keep on being nice to her. I wanted to smother her with compassion until she passed out. I wanted to shove kindness into her angry face until she puked up all of her roiling anger.

“Hey!” I called, not thinking. “Can I give you a ride? I’m happy to give you a ride to work.”

She shook her head and kept her eyes on the ground. “I’m fine!” she said. “I just need to work it out on my own.”

No, I wanted to tell her, what you need is some time with my dancing Cornish game hens. THAT, is what you need!

Instead, I waved. “OK. Tomorrow will be a better day!”

And I drove off, relieved that she wouldn’t be in my car (I generally don’t need more Crazy in my car) marveling at the sadness and anger in her story. Feeling overwhelmed with sadness myself.

Certainly, the story about the burglary, about being late for work, about her mean boss, may have been fiction. After all that, she wasn’t even walking toward the bus stop. But the sadness and the anger? That was 100% real.

That’s the thing: there is a lot of sadness and anger in a lot of our stories. Certainly, we may handle it differently than the angry woman did, but we all have sadness and anger in our lives. All of us. Yes, even you, Miss PollyAnna Perfectlife. Even and especially you.

Which brings me back to Story. I think we love and seek stories because our own stories are so important to us. Our stories, past and present, forge our identity, and with our identity, we are grounded in something that feels slightly more stable than life often feels.

We humans need to believe we matter. We need to know our lives have meaning. I think it’s our stories that give our lives meaning. My stories tether me to something bigger than myself, and your stories, when I remind myself to hear them, add a richness to my life, either by what they teach me or by how much less alone I feel after hearing them.

Weeks after that near-scuffle at Rite Aid, I am still thinking about that angry woman, wondering how she’s doing. Wondering if that ugly t-shirt was for her or if she gave it to a loved one. Does a woman that angry even have loved ones? She became real when I absorbed a small part of her story. A little part of her now resides in my head, for better or for worse.

Sharing our stories with others, and even more important, taking the time to listen to the stories of those around us, is the best thing we can do to grow peace and love. Likewise, making inanimate things tell jokes and cuss inappropriately adds humor and laughter (two other key growers of peace and love) to our day.

So come on. You try it, too! Learn someone’s story this week. Coerce someone to share his/her/its story with you, then report back. I’m not kidding about this, people. Inquire of and listen to the stories of others (even if it’s just an heirloom tomato or some knee fat). Just see what happens.

Black and red tree art courtesy of Flickr’s DryIcons.

Normal

In General, Parenting on April 9, 2012 at 7:07 am

The other day, Sweetie came downstairs wearing a rainbow-striped sweater, a many-colored floral dress, rainbow leggings, intentionally mismatched socks, and a hairstyle that involved six different accessories, including a piece of rainbow yarn for gift wrapping and another big poofy rainbow bow. The girl likes her rainbows.

What I thought upon seeing her: Please God, let kids not make fun of her today.

What I forced myself to say: “Wowww. You sure have a LOT of color in your outfit and a LOT of very interesting things going on in your hairstyle. You, Sweetie-girl, are definitely going to add some color to this gray day!”

I paused, watching her look down through her green and purple glasses, so pleased and proud of her unorthodox outfit. And while I still am not sure whether I should have said this next thing, I couldn’t help it.

“There is,” I said, “a small-to-medium chance that a kid might say something like, ‘Why are you wearing your hair all weird like that?’ Or ‘That outfit is craaaazy!'”

She gave me a look of exasperation. “But Mommy, I WANT kids to say that.” Then she twirled her way out of my office, right into the bathroom, where she smiled at her beautiful reflection in the  bathroom mirror.

My momentary anxiety over Sweetie’s unorthodox style (a style which has been unorthodox for years) made me think about the things we wish most for our children.

I’m pretty sure that at the heart of our hopes and wishes is this: we want our kids to be normal. To fit in socially, emotionally and physically. To be at peace with who they are, yes, but never stray too far from the norm. We want our kids to be special and unique but not weird.

No one wants a weird kid.

The reason for that is obvious. When you march to the beat of a different drummer, other people notice your rhythmic differences, often with irritation. A bunch of unique rhythms, even one unique rhythm, tends to threaten the whole song.

To be honest, I’d feel a whole lot better with Buddy and Sweetie taking well-traveled I-90 across the country than I would with them forging their own less-traveled roads. The untraveled road is bumpy and unpaved. Deep ruts and potholes can really do a number on one’s tires.  Boogeymen and Whomping Willows and moral eels abound on roads less traveled.

This Guy Was Last Seen on a Road Less Traveled near Spokane, WA

On the roads more traveled, there’s a Starbucks and a McDonald’s every few miles. The pavement is mostly even. Friendly police patrol the area, monitoring reckless driving, helping when there’s car trouble. Gas stations and rest stops with hot coffee line well-traveled roads. There’s not a moral eel for miles.

Moral Eels Terrify Me, but for Some Reason, I Love Putting Them in My Blog Posts.

I have a friend who assumes her young son is gay. “That’s fine with us,” she says. “We don’t have any problem with that.” She’s 100% sincere when she says that. But then she continues. “It’s just that being gay means life will be harder for him. That’s what’s hard.”

Indeed.

Same goes for kids who are transgendered. Kids with Asperger’s or Tourette’s or birthmarks on their face. Kids who are super intelligent or super tall or super unathletic. Life is harder for kids who aren’t physically or socially or intellectually normal.

But what is “normal” and why do we care so much about it?

A recent NY Times article titled “Puberty Before Age 10: A New ‘Normal’?” discussed the plight of Tracee Sioux, the mother of a young girl who had started developing early, getting pubic hair at age six, followed by breast buds and woman curves. The article explains:

Over the past three years, [mother] Tracee had taken [daughter] Ainsley to see several doctors. They ordered blood tests and bone-age X-rays and turned up nothing unusual. “The doctors always come back with these blank looks on their faces, and then they start redefining what normal is,” Tracee said . . . “And I always just sit there thinking, What are you talking about, normal? Who gets pubic hair in first grade?”

In this case, Tracee’s concern with “normal” is rational. She wants to know if something medical or environmental has caused her daughter’s precocious puberty. I can understand that. Tracee also worries about her daughter’s self esteem, her daughter’s discomfort with developing so early. I can understand that, too.

Sometimes, when our children are clearly are not normal, getting a label of “Yep, your kid is just fine!” is utterly frustrating. When a medical professional tells Tracee her daughter is “normal,” he is really saying Tracee should not worry, that she’s being neurotic and alarmist.

So yes. There is a time and place for the concept of normal, for the boundaries of what is and what is not normal. But I think we humans can rely too heavily and seek too much comfort from a hard and fast definition of what is normal. After all, we like labels. Labels are comforting in the same way fences, walls, security systems, country clubs and private schools are comforting. But why?

An article in Psychology Today titled “Why We Fear the Unknown” explains:

The drive to completely and quickly divide the world into “us” and “them” is so powerful that it must surely come from some deep-seated need. The exact identity of that need, however, has been subject to debate. The late Henri Tajfel, of the University of Bristol in England, and John Turner, of the Australian National University, devised a theory to explain the psychology behind a range of prejudices and biases, not just xenophobia. Their theory was based, in part, on the desire to think highly of oneself. One way to lift your self-esteem is to be part of a distinctive group, like a winning team; another is to play up the qualities of your own group and denigrate the attributes of others so that you feel your group is better.

So labeling may be a natural reaction when we come across those who seem not like us. We’re likely not even aware that we do it. But perhaps we should start being more aware of the things of which we are not aware. After all, when we slap a quick label on someone, we immediately limit what we think they have to offer the world.

When Buddy opted to switch to another school in the district, other moms were not shy about sharing their concerns with our decision to let Buddy make his decision.

You’re going to let Buddy go to a school with a bunch of intellectual weirdos?

You’re going to let Buddy go to a school where kids have no social skills?

I wouldn’t want my child going to a school where all the kids just play chess and talk about chemistry!

That’s a whole lot of fear and discomfort going on there. Not from his peers, but from his peers’ parents. Kids aren’t nearly as adept as labeling and judging those who are different as adults. Interesting, no?

The other day, I dropped Sweetie off in her classroom to see that in her teacher’s place was a substitute teacher. The sub had long hair and breasts and feminine clothes. But her voice was Barry White-ish, and her face and hands were masculine. Along her chin was faint stubble. She walked like a linebacker, her broad shoulders thick and muscled.

My first (unkind, judgmental) thought: Jeepers!

My second thought:  Bless your heart. Your life is about infinity times harder than mine.

I also wondered whether Sweetie would notice the blurred lines of this teacher’s gender.

So that afternoon, when Sweetie and a pal were having an afternoon snack at our house, I casually asked. “So how was the sub today?”

“Not so good,” Sweetie said immediately. “She didn’t really know what to do. And Mary kept telling him–I mean, her–how to do stuff. Because she didn’t really know what to do.”

“Yeah!” Sweetie’s friend chimed in. “And she talked like a man!”

Sweetie agreed. “Her voice was verrrrrrrry low.”

So yes, the girls noticed some gender blurring, but there was no judgment. Judgment of her sub skills, yes, but not in the fact that she looked like a woman yet had the voice and the posture of a man. Kids notice difference, but there’s often little judgment and certainly no discomfort.

Maybe we should be more kid-like in this way. After all, when we avoid anyone who is different, might that be our loss? I’m not suggesting that I’d suddenly like to hang with Ann Coulter or a mom who home schools her nine children. I’m not saying you should should invite a schizophrenic homeless gentleman over for dinner. I’m just saying that maybe people who are different shouldn’t be labeled as oddball nut-jobs.  (Even though it is very difficult for me to think of Ann Coulter as anything other than a nut-job.) As difficult as it is, maybe we should be better about recognizing that each human, however weird or unorthodox, has something valuable to share.

In this article, “The Upside of Autism,” the author makes this point:

When it comes to disorders of the mind, our society has a tendency to seek out the safety of clear-cut categories. We want there to be a bright line separating normal from abnormal, health from sickness.

Alas, the human brain is a category buster, an organ so complicated that it continues to surprise and confound.

Consider autism. In recent years, autism has received an increasing amount of attention, largely because of a dramatic increase in its incidence. According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in 88 children is now diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorders, which include “classic” autism as well as Asperger syndrome.

These diagnoses are often based on observed deficits in social interaction, such as a lack of eye contact or verbal conversation . . . Because of these obvious shortcomings—humans are supposed to be social animals, after all—most people regard autism as a disease, a straightforward example of an impaired mind.

Yes, we are supposed to be social animals. Therefore we value other social animals. Therefore someone who seems anti-social or socially awkward is labeled as weird or different or abnormal. The article goes on:

But there’s compelling evidence that autism is not merely a list of deficits. Rather, it represents an alternate way of making sense of the world, a cognitive difference that, in many instances, comes with unexpected benefits.

An alternate way of making sense of the world. How refreshing! Shouldn’t we, a nation born of a desire to be free and to have freedoms not afforded in other places, celebrate new ways of making sense of the world?

Or, do we really mean this: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. UNLESS they are weird. Or mentally ill. Or have an autism diagnosis. Or make art that makes no sense to me. Or prefer to wear a thousand rainbow patterns and mismatched socks.

Many artists and composers and writers struggle with mental health issues, but the world would certainly be less colorful without Van Gogh’s Starry Night, without Abe Lincoln’s Four Score and Seven Years Ago speech, without Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. All works created by people with oddball brains.

So today, on yet another gray Seattle morning, I say this:

Give me your mentally ill artists and writers and musicians, your rainbow-clad, crazy hairstyled children, your transgendered substitute teachers, your Aspergery inventors. Send these, the homeless, the tempest tossed to us. For it’s they who add color and music and ideas to our broken, messy planet.

The least I can do, the best way to thank them, is to show my compassion and encouragement in return.

Scary moray eel photos courtesy of Flickr’s Intova and Kumukulanui.

Myth

In Body Stuff, General, Parenting on March 22, 2012 at 6:52 am

A Persuasive Essay, in Which Sarah (who is not a sex educator) Explains Why You Might Want To Be Discussing the Birds and the Bees with Your Children

Our family did The Sex Talk when the kiddos hit kindergarten. This was, I admit, mostly to avoid my own embarrassment. I figured if the kids were too young to know they should be mortified by the conversation, I wouldn’t be so mortified.

But our desire to introduce the topic sooner rather than later was also based on two other facts:

First, Sex is confusing.

For this I blame Ancient Greece. Sure, the Greeks may be the co-founders of modern civilization, but one only has to look at birth stories from Greek Mythology to understand why we might be confused about birds and bees today.

Athena, for example, spent most of her gestation and childhood in Zeus’ skull. When Hephaestus, a blacksmith, took a wedge and split open Zeus’ head, out popped a full-grown Athena, all dressed in armor (complete with javelin and flouncy skirt).

Equally interesting and violent, Aphrodite was born from the sea-foam that rose up from her father’s castrated genitals. Oy!

Dionysus was born from Zeus’ thigh. (Which explains why we never hear that Zeus “peed just a little” during post-partum jumping jacks.)

And Helen of Troy was born (hatched, technically) after Zeus turned himself into a swan and impregnated Leda, Helen’s mother.  Why a swan? you may ask. I suppose Zeus might have asked, Why not a swan?

We also need to give our kids the skinny on sex because of the omnipresence of sexual language and imagery. Our kids will be exposed to it even if we’re vigilant and concerned and involved. Even if we monitor screen time. Even if we home-school them. Call me crazy, but I prefer that my kids learn stuff from me rather than from one of those super-classy Go Daddy ads or from the news headlines detailing the sexcapades of elected officials or, worst of all, from some sicko trolling for kids via the internet.

Two books we started reading to the kids (when Buddy hit kindergarten) were Amazing You! And What’s the Big Secret?. I’d recommend both as good jumping off points; the cartoon illustrations are appealing to kids, and the text is honest and direct.

I will say that in What’s the Big Secret, there’s a page on masturbation that (according to the negative Amazon reviews) tends to disturb at least seven parents in the United States. One negative reviewer was also appalled by the use of the words “vulva” and “scrotum” in this particular book. I suppose she was hoping for “hoochie” and “balls”?

God bless America.

I will also say that the first few times, I skipped right over the page that explained what goes where during sex. At least until Buddy realized that unless sperm had wings or ninja powers, the transfer from the guy’s penis all the way over to the woman’s egg seemed unlikely.

Buddy started jabbing the tips of his index fingers together, asking, “But how does the sperm get to the egg?”

So I swallowed, then forced myself to tell him the truth. “The penis just gets really really close to the vagina.” I paused. “Actually, it goes inside the vagina.”

He nodded. “Oh,” he said. “OK.”

“Buddy? Do you want me to keep reading, or does this make you feel a little uncomfortable?”

A very long pause. “It does makes me feel a little uncomfortable, but I want you to keep reading.”

Now, three years later, I am extra glad we’ve already broached the topic, as at age nine, Buddy has reached the mortified stage.  A few weeks ago, Sweetie told us (over post-church Sunday dinner) that so-and-so in her class was saying the f-word.

“Oh,” I said. “What’s the f-word?”

“Fuck,” she said, her little voice as clear as a bell.

It hurt my ears a little, but I was also relieved that she seemed to believe this boy had exposed her to the f-word. As opposed to her mother. Who has been known to use it on occasion.

“That’s right,” I said. “That’s the f-word. Do you know what it means?”

Buddy and Sweetie shook their heads.

I glanced at Husbandio who gave me the green light to take this conversation to the finish line. “Well,” I said. “It’s a not very nice way of saying “having sex.”

Well, as soon as that sentence was out of my mouth, Buddy picked up his milk, chugged it, then stood up and hurried his dinner plate to the kitchen counter, his fair skin blushing pink. “May I please be excused?”

Without waiting for us to answer, he hurried away. It seems the topic still makes him feel a little uncomfortable, only now he does NOT want to hear more.

Yet The Talk needs to keep evolving and changing as our kids get older.

Throughout history, if kids got The Talk at all, it was really just a single talk. One terribly embarrassing conversation, after which parents could put away the copy of Where Did I Come From, breathing a sigh of relief that THAT duty could be crossed off the list.

But Seattle-based sex education experts Amy LangJulie Metzger and Jo Langford believe The Talks should keep happening as the kids mature. Even if our kids aren’t asking. In Lang’s article titled, “The Three Biggest Myths Even Smart Moms Believe That Get in the Way of The Sex Talks,” the Number One biggest myth is that parents don’t need to have the conversation if kids aren’t asking about sex.

Our kids may not be asking us about sex, but they are likely talking about it with their peers. And even if they’re not talking about it with their peers, they are still seeing sexual imagery and hearing sexual language.

Think about it: Thanks to technology, an elected politician can take a photo of his penis and email it to a special friend! Or several special friends! And then the whole world is privy to these indiscretions.

It is difficult to avoid coverage of Weiner’s wiener or Limbaugh’s misogynistic idiocy that likens women to porn stars and prostitutes. It’s even more difficult to watch a simple football game on television without seeing sexual imagery.

Go Daddy ads, for example, are trashy and stupid, but man, do my kids’ ears perk up during those 30-second spots. I suppose when you have two hot women painting the body of another hot, faceless woman who just happens to be naked, that grabs a person’s attention.

And what about Victoria’s Secret ads? According to Macmillan’s Online Dictionary, soft porn is described as “films, magazines, photographs, etc. that show sexual images but not sexual acts.” Don’t those angel-filled ads qualify as soft porn? I think so. Perhaps it’s the erotic noises in the background music. Or the way the model is lying across the back of a white horse. Or the way she’s touching her lips with her fingertips. Or maybe it’s just the perfect breasts everywhere. And there’s always lots of wind blowing. Have you noticed? Are we women sexier in a strong wind? Here. This one has the music and the wind and the perfect breasts.

And speaking of perfect breasts, let’s chat for a moment about the difference between pornography of the 1980’s vs. pornography today. Thanks to technology, more breasts can be “perfect,” either by surgery or by airbrushing. Also thanks to technology, porn is available on any computer, AND it’s available in Hi-Def video form. Gone are the days of still-shot photos. Now kids can get their sex education and learn what women really like via porn videos.

The topic of pornography is a larger one for another time, but let’s just consider this: if children are watching porn videos on the internet (and we are naive if we think they aren’t!) they will believe that’s how sex works. No need for relationships, no need for small talk or meaningful conversation or a getting-to-know-you period of courtship. No sir. Give the guy a bit of chicka-baobao background music, and the clothes just fall right off.

That’s a myth that disturbs me a whole lot more than castrated genitals.

I’m certainly no expert, but I’d prefer that Buddy and Sweetie learn from me, not from the internet, not from the mythical worlds of Victoria’s Secret fantasies. Not from kids on the school bus or the playground. Certainly not from Danica Patrick who, in my opinion, really blew her chance at being an excellent role model to girls. But that’s an entirely separate topic.

It’s a myth that educating kids about sexual matters turns them into sex-crazed creatures. It’s a myth that reading the page about masturbation turns kiddos into mega-masturbators. But it’s no myth that too many of us American parents are surprisingly prudish and squeamish when it comes to talking about sex.

Teaching kids about sexual matters (including safety and responsibility) increases the chances that they will turn into responsible, respectful teenagers who grow into responsible, respectful adults.

And it’s a fact that our modern civilization could use a few more of those.