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Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Swan from the Start

The other day, I read a parenting post stating decisively that people shouldn't tell a little girl how pretty she is. Physical attributes, the thinking goes, are not a good measure of a person, and besides they are fragile. The unstated judgement is that valuing appearance is shallow and leads to irreparable vanity. Instead we should only praise her strength and intelligence and sense of humor and other more "laudable" traits. The goal is to teach self-worth based on her character, not her body.

That sounds really good. I almost bought into it, until I looked into the mirror.

It's so easy for a child to latch on to the most ridiculous of ideas. For me it was the understanding that I'm not pretty. I never thought of myself as ugly, just unremarkable. I don't know the genesis of this thinking. It was probably a generic criticism, mixed in with the other flotsam of girlish competition. Unfortunately this one became entangled in all the other insecurities native to a young girl and fell to the floor of my consciousness, slowly seeping its particular poison through the years.

Looking back I can see the subtle ways my behavior was shaped by this one idea. I ached to be pretty, and found myself drawn to beautiful people, hoping their magic would dust off onto me. When it didn't, I withdrew into my mind and distanced myself from the disappointment that was my body. I neglected to value myself, and as a consequence I didn't  care for myself. Exercise was pointless. Beautiful clothes and jewelry were for beautiful people. I would just have to make do. But in my secret heart-of-hearts, I longed to be a princess, if just for one Cinderella night.

This doesn't mean I lacked all faith in myself. I knew I was strong and determined and smart. I believed I could make a difference in the world. But onteh occasions that a man did -- miraculously, I thought -- notice me, I was careless with my body, and my heart. I once asked a lover if he thought I was beautiful. He  prevaricated and finally admitted that he didn't. Despite my shredded heart I stayed.

Over time I've learned to admire my parts. My college roommate taught me that every girl deserves pretty lingerie. My sister-from-another-mother has taken me shopping and shown me how to show off my curvy figure. I've been given lessons in makeup, and compliments on my eyes. Sometimes, when I least expect it, I look in the mirror and find beauty there, wrinkles and dimples and spots and all. I am grateful for those moments.

To be honest, I don't know if thinking myself pretty would truly have changed anything. Still, I will tell my daughter every step of the way that she is smart and funny and strong and, yes, beautiful. I will tell her until she knows in every cell that both her mind and her body are to be cherished and respected and cared for. I will declare her beauty to the world and I will not be satisfied until she can do the same. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

On Thursday


"This must be Thursday. I could never get the hang of Thursdays." - Douglas Adams, Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy

In Hungarian "On Thursday" is csütörtökön. This is one of my favorite words. I love the precision required to say it correctly. How foreign it feels in my mouth. I've forgotten most of what I learned, but this particular phrase has stuck. I have a treasured collection of linguistic oddments that are part of my internal vernacular. Sometimes I say them out loud to myself, like a child playing with her toys. Once I had to do so in empty rooms, lest people fret. The rise of earpieces and cell phones has done wonders for my perceived sanity.

It's a lovely morning for sleeping in -- overcast, damp, and 63 degrees. The dogs believe it to be a perfect day for a walk. We're agreeing to disagree. The house is quiet, except for occasional song from the more ambition robins in our neighborhood. The oven is ticking as it preheats -- cinnamon rolls should get us all moving, although I'm tempted to abandon responsibility and leave the kids abed. I take comfort in standing guard over my slumbering sweetlings. 

I was reminded this morning that one of my two superpowers is rescuing trapped insects and small mammals. This morning we saved a Very Large dragonfly from the bag of apricots on the kitchen counter. I have no idea how it got in there. I couldn't catch it with a container, but at the offer of a fingertip it gingerly stepped aboard for the ride outside, even allowing some photos before hurtling into the brightening sky.

The other is the appearance that I always know where I am and where I'm going. I have been approached around the world by strangers needing directions, sometimes in their own country where I am a visitor.

For the record, my sidekick power is making animal noises. Really. I can imitate most domesticated animals (including livestock). Comes in handy when distracting the villain.

Text copied from Facebook at my mother's request

Friday, June 27, 2014

From the Dusty Corners of My Hard Drive

Just ran across this, er, salute to Poe which I wrote in response to a Poets of G+ Community prompt for National Poetry Month. It is silly and made me laugh, so I thought I'd share it. 

The Dogs
See the puppies with their tails
Wagging tails!
With furry smiles and joyful leaps they happily regale
How they wiggle, wiggle, wiggle
With obvious delight
While tiny children giggle
And even grownups sniggle
And everything about them seems just perfectly alright
Barking: ruff ruff ruff ruff ruff
Pretending to be tough
Running laps around the living room like tiny springtime gales
Wagging tails, tails, tails, tails, tails, tails
The whirling and the spinning fluffy tails.

See the doggies with their paws
Giant paws!
What muddy tracks and messes these beloved pups can cause
How they scurry, scurry, scurry
With evident delight
To greet another furry
or guard against all worry
Always ready to defend against a stranger in the night
Drinking: lap, lap, lap, lap, lap
before a twitching nap
Pacing ‘round the house with clickety-tapping claws
Giant paws paws paws paws paws paws paws
The scratching and the thumping massive paws.

See the canines with their teeth
Pointed teeth!
So sharp and white and perilously unsheathed
How they glisten, glisten, glisten
With pendulous saliva
A shiver comes, a frisson
of tension. Be still, listen
Pray a fearless warrior does in time arrive
Clasp your hands upon your laps
Hope for werewolf traps
Strongly made of iron but in hammered silver wreathed
Lest beasts eat, eat, eat, eat, eat
Feast upon the mortals, flesh between their teeth.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rational rationale

I have thought about guns a great deal since my father committed suicide by handgun when I was in ninth grade.

I say that not to elicit sympathy, but as a starting point for this essay. A little background: my parents were divorced when I was an infant; I had little contact with my father before he died; and my mother provided such a rich community of elders that his absence seemed incidental. Nonetheless, his death has affected me in ways I am still discovering.

All of this is by way of explaining the very personal relationship I have with gun control efforts, especially those around handguns. Not long before my father died, the "Brady Bill" brought national attention to gun control efforts. I supported the movement then; my conviction was deepened by my father's death and has been cemented over time.

That said, as distasteful as I find them, I am not against gun ownership. My husband has rifles and uses them. My son has practiced marksmanship with his Scout pack. A number of my friends enjoy a day at the shooting range. I respect that. I have even surprised people in the past -- those who have heard (or read) me rant about gun control -- with my ardent support of hunters, albeit from the perspective that they play a vital role in wildlife management.

I am aware that the basic regulations for which I advocate would not have saved my father's life. He owned his weapons legally and had a permit. I know also that his suicide was really a symptom of a lifetime of alcohol abuse. If he was truly intent on ending his life, he would have found a way.

The thing is, with suicide by gun there is very little margin of error. There are plenty of statistics (yes, yes, I know -- lies, damn lies, and statistics) tallying gun deaths. What many people don't realize is that two-thirds of those are suicides. Having a gun vastly increases the odds of someone attempting and succeeding in trying to kill themselves. Especially, unfortunately, people under the age of 18. It is so easy. 

As for other deaths? Looser laws in any one state vastly increases the homocide rate there as well. Locations with regulations around gun storage (locked up and unloaded) see far fewer accidental fatalities. I'm not going to turn this into a numbers game -- there are plenty of much better researched and dedicated pages for that. What I am going to say, after nearly 30 years of thinking about it, is that I truly believe that most of these deaths -- suicide, homocide, accidental -- were preventable with simple, common sense measures. I don't intend to strip guns away from people. I do believe that we can ask them to be responsible -- much as I am required to prove a certain level of responsibility before owning or operating a vehicle. Growing up in my little valley, getting a hunting license and going on your first hunt was a rite of passage. I remember all the kids excitedly talking about signing up for the hunter safety courses their parents required before going into the woods. That step was part and parcel of growing up and being a "good" -- as in moral and ethical -- hunter. I don't know why that has changed.

I have heard at length (from my husband, among others) the argument that people rely too much on the government to keep them safe, and that it's a "nanny state". You know what? We as a nation have proven that necessary. After struggling to keep eight-year olds calm and quiet through lockdown drills, after mourning too many mass shootings, after seeing pictures of men and women carrying firearms through Target, I don't trust my fellow citizens to act in our collective best interest. The roughly 32,000 gun deaths last year are my measure of why I believe the following basics should be implemented:
  • Require all gun owners to take a use and safety course. I'd encourage them to go further and go through some simulation training. This would be for everyone's safety. I have been in enough mildly emergency situations that I don't trust people to behave well under stress, let alone a situation where gunfire might be needed. I really, really, really don't want an untrained, panicking person trying to use a gun.
  • Require background checks for ALL sales. Period.
  • Restrict large capacity ammunition clips.
  • Restrict multi-weapon sales, especially through unlicensed dealers. This is where many of the weapons used unlawfully come from.
I'm sure there are more, but I didn't start this post with the intent to list out my solutions. As I said, there are better and more passionate sites for that. All I wanted to do was tie the political back to the personal. So many folks cry out for RKBA (the Right to Keep and Bear Arms). I think, sometimes, they forget the people behind the calls for regulation.

I was not close to my father. I may never have been, even if he had lived. Nonetheless, his death affected me profoundly. Most immediately came the knowledge that I was "half an orphan". My mother's mortality was highlighted by my father's death, deepening a sense of the fragility of family which had been instilled three years prior with the death of my maternal grandmother.

The longer-lasting, more complicated impact came from my imagination. Here's what I think I know: as a result of his alcoholic behavior, his third wife left him. She found him when she returned to the house sometime during the week. 

From there my vivid imagination takes over, filling in the gaps. I can see him angrily drinking while watching the Broncos lose. I smell the oil as he breaks down the gun, wiping it clean, reassembling. Repeating, maybe, as he drinks more. Easing toward tears, frustration melting into an overwhelming sense of failure. Walking to his bedroom. Lying down on the pastel bedspread. The shot, and a fan of chunky blood on the wall. 

I have carried those images in my head for more than twenty years now. I have no idea if they are even vaguely accurate. I don't care to find out.

All I want, really, is that no one else have to live with their version of this sorrow.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Absentee

In my first memory of my father, we are assembling a two-wheel bicycle together. I must have been six or seven, and he'd come to visit for the first time. I was blessedly oblivious of the grown-up politics of divorce, and took to heart the promise he made to come back and remove the training wheels when I was ready. He never did.

I'm sure there was more contact somewhere in there, but my next memory is of crossing a frozen parking lot from my mother's car to his -- like a prisoner in an exchange between countries -- when I went to stay with him for the first time. I played video games (Donkey Kong) for the first time in my life.

On the third -- and final -- visit that I remember, his wife and I baked an apple pie for his birthday. I met a half-sister whose existence was previously unknown to me, got my period, and wound up in a fight with him.

Needless to say, Father's Day held little meaning for me for many years. I didn't mourn the absence of a father because I never had one.

Two marriages changed that: my mother's, and my own. 

The man my mother married has become a father to me. He is constant and kind. He is loving, and forgiving. He sends me cards when I am blue and offers gentle guidance when I feel lost. Sometimes, now, I get flashes of jealousy for people who grew up with a father. The feeling passes quickly, but is a reminder of just how fortunate I am now.

For my husband, fatherhood is a challenge. I believe he was abused, although the family mythos is that the boys "deserved" the treatment they got. He told me once, "I don't want to be like my dad." He isn't, although it's a struggle. We work hard to find a path together, and don't always succeed. Still, he loves our children with depth and desperation, and they know it. He is great for wrestling and board games. He is instilling in them a tremendous work ethic. The kids are unaware of how much knowledge they have absorbed from his lectures, but I hear and see it in their school lessons. He tries, over and over and over again to give them what he never had -- support and unconditional love and an awareness of just how very proud he is of their efforts and accomplishments.

I know now what I never had, and am grateful for what I do have: a man who has become my dad, and the man who fights every day to be a good father to our children. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Women of a Certain Age

I woke sobbing this morning, the voice of a newly dead man echoing in my head.

I always thought that becoming a woman of a certain age meant something joyful -- being no longer burdened by other peoples' judgements, and free to have adventures.

Instead it seems to mean saying goodbye. One friend has lost her mother. Another buried her father. Two friends have stood by as their mothers endured terrible complications from awful surgeries. My own mother has some health concerns. And the dead man? I don't know that I could have called him a friend, but he was kind to me when I was a child. When visiting my hometown I looked forward to running into him and catching up.

Remember being desperate to grow up? To understand the ripple of laughter that went around the room full of adults? As if being taller was the ticket to entering a special carnival full of shiny lights and amusements. Now I look around and ask: when does the fun start?

This gloom will pass. A good shamble this morning already has put me in a better mood. Still, I feel diminished by this, and so many other, deaths.

However my still-amorphous beliefs resolve themselves, I do believe I'll see again those I've lost, and become whole. Until then, a toast to those who have gone before.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

War No More, or A Small Triumph

The tiny boy slipped between the fence posts of the bakery patio. His mother called him back, but a mischievous giggle told me he was headed for trouble. I've had toddlers. They're ornery beings. Rising to let her pass (I was closer to the gateway), I did a quick calculation and instead sprinted to the street corner just in time. Well, maybe not just in time. He had 15 feet to go, and it's a quiet neighborhood. I blocked his path then herded him back to his mother. She thanked me and I finished my cinnamon roll while basking in a tiny sense of triumph. Not for intervening -- there were enough people around that someone would have stepped in -- but for how I did it. I sprinted. I ran full tilt, legs long and stretching, down the sidewalk, and when finished I wasn't even breathing hard.

That may not sound like much, but it is a big change. Until fairly recently my body was a meatsuit only good for carrying my brain around. Sometime in the past year, that ended. It's not a truce. It's a peace. I've finally come to appreciate my whole self. Most surprisingly, I don't hate any of my parts. I am, shall we say, unfashionably lumpy. My belly will only be flat if someone takes a scalpel to it. I have granny wings. Exercising makes my breasts shrink and my thighs grow. My personal best is a 17 minute mile. But underneath it all I have rock-hard muscles, and a brain to match. I am a creature of the mind and the body. I can climb mountains and write. I can bicycle to a picnic in the park and do kitchen science with my kids.

Last week was tough. I didn't walk at all. The dogs stared at me in particularly guilt-inducing ways. I was sleep deprived and work stressed and there were a couple of authoritative articles about weight loss that made me feel helpless. My pedometer refused to budge, mostly because I wasn't. My scale was just as stubborn. For this first time, however, I didn't hate myself, or rampage through the cupboards trying to find solace in a bag of chips. I told myself that it was an off week and I'd get back on track.

Which is why Miss Awesome, the dogs, and I geared up and headed to the bakery in the first place. Oh, sure, the cinnamon roll was a delicious motivator. But really, I wanted a good walk to clear my head and strengthen my heart.