Category Archives: Lessons Learned The Hard Way

the same mistake

I tend to overestimate the amount of weight I can comfortably carry. As long as I can stand with the combination of children, backpack, or grocery bags on my body, I do. I decide the discomfort is temporarily tolerable. After all it’s just a block/few hundred feet/distance from the grocery store to my home. My assessment is accurate for the first few steps, but the last few will betray my limitations. Today: probably greater than 50% of my body weight after my one and half year-old son declared “Uppie!” and would not travel unless he were on my shoulders. This after I had purchased groceries banking on him not doing that. Kids these days. I dismounted him two houses away from my own. After getting to my porch, I dropped the grocery bags to the side and limply flopped into the Adirondack chair. I told the kids to play and took advantage of the fact it was refrigerator temperature outside while my muscles yelled at me. The acute pain subsided after a few minutes, and we did go inside after a few more.

“That was stupid,” I think to myself, but the other thought screams louder… I did, in fact, carry everything, including my son. It was hard but I was successful. I keep pushing the perceived limit until I find the real one, and I am finding that sometimes is the best way to get difficult things done, presuming I can cope with the consequences.

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Maybe it is because I am older. I’m finally at a point where I am comfortable with my demons. Not overly so; we aren’t snuggling on the couch watching Sherlock. I no longer pretend they are else where, or no where at all. I am less uneasy sitting at my dining room table sipping my third cup of coffee as we share breakfast. It is better this way. I was ashamed of them, as is normal, and spent my time avoiding the dining room hoping that if I never ate I’d starve them into nonexistence. Problem: I could not survive on incompleteness. So, here we are, passing each other stale toast. It’s not unconditional acceptance. I polished their horns and claws with fine grit sandpaper masquerading as polishing cloth. The instructions said these demons would sparkle so much they’d get confused for the decor. The process hurt, no one is prettier, and no one is fooled; I did succeed in blunting the edge.

I’ve been thinking about protest. It’s a statement. It’s an aesthetic. I’m much more keen on the statement than the aesthetic, though the paint color adorns a wall of the dining room. The demons raise their eyebrows, and motion with the toast, “Really? That? It’s hideous. It’s ugly in it’s own right and it matches nothing else here.” I’ll tell them I didn’t put it up because it was pretty. I thought it was the right thing to do. Then they’ll point out the cracks in the wall and something about lead paint remediation gone wrong. I finish cup of coffee number three.

Protest is a statement, and despite comfort with the sound, I’ve got bandwidth problems. How is it humanly possible to reach one’s arms wide enough to broadcast the messages worth saying and keep holding that which you must not drop? I usually sacrifice the reach, as some of what I hold can only reside in my hands. It is not a perfect solution. Sometimes, when you do not reach, no one else does either. Sometimes, it must be you. I feel like my arms are so outstretched that they are one error of scheduling away from popping out of my shoulder sockets, a fact that doesn’t diminish that there is always, always, always more to do. Some dropped balls bounce. Some dropped balls break. There are glass shards on the floor from when I’ve guessed wrong, permanently ground into the carpet without even the courtesy of a treacherous sparkle.

Maybe it is because I am older; my vision is blurry. I am surrounded by gray. The air is gray, the ground is gray, the sky is gray and even the bathwater is gray. The sharp, defined lines delineating paths have blurred. The easily identified fence between the Good and the Bad has transformed into a mild gradient on a slight incline, where even Good and Bad blur together and it begins to feel like they are the same property. The moral compass spins and fractures, and the map to the right decision leads you to the mistake you’d most prefer. Even when I grab buckets of paint to recolor the world into something my younger self saw, I find I’ve just covered it with a different shade of gray. Sometimes it seems as the paint might as well be invisible, for all this work and it is all the same. Struggling to change the status quo can be insufficient to change it, I learn time and time again. At least this color matches my furniture.

I struggle with what to do. The demons sometimes sound like my closest friends, especially when I ask advice about tricky things, and they say the same thing. I sit at the table sipping my fourth cup of coffee wondering if I’ve miscast these demons, if the story I wrote for them in my life is overly dismissive; maybe they aren’t demons at all. Was the sharp delineation I gave them from the rest of myself just a self-deluded optical illusion? Are they as gray as the rest of everything? Did I imagine that they had a sharp contrast with the rest of myself? I was in stage tech. I sat behind the scenes. I learned all the techniques to make make-believe seem magic. I learned the art of mirage. I am privy to what makes the performance convincing, but have I fallen for it?

Though there is a pile of crumbs on my dining room floor, no one seems to have finished eating. No one seems ready to leave. If I wait long enough, if I overthink everything enough, it’ll all fade to gray, and I won’t be able to see a thing.


Filed under Excessive allegory, Lessons Learned The Hard Way, Personal, Social Justice Commentary

It’s like a conversation at the cafe or a letter you threw out.

Cloud encroaching over a lake, sun reflecting on the unencroached part

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Some years ago I needed advice on a rather sensitive private matter. Unless you are in the web of family and friends I sought guidance from, I don’t really talk about it. I don’t need to; it is more or less resolved now.

I mention it because I also read a ton on the subject, mostly books and blogs, to figure it out what I needed to do. Reading is my therapy. Writing feels that way, but that is deceptive. Writing the sentences, structuring the argument, finding the flaws in my reasoning: those activities help me figure life out. But hitting the publish button? Eeeeeeeee, that is a different story. Then working out my issues becomes a social act. Then, get this, sometimes people READ IT, and then they know. Oh, they know. I love Anne Lamott, but the way the spotlight on her own life reflected onto her associates seemed too harsh to aim at anyone I know. Reading her books feels like inadvertently getting into her friends’ business and still feel like maybe I should not be there.

Other people did not necessarily have that inhibition, and fortunately for me, they were writing about that sensitive topic that I am still too bashful to discuss. They wrote their truths and self-published them on websites using their real names as the URLs. The wordsmithing was usually excellent and the content was desperately relevant. Wow, I thought. This is helpful. And you are bolder than me. In any case, thanks to all those writers out there: I needed to hear what you apparently needed to write.

Fast forward some years later. Most of those blogs are gone.

Let me explain something: there was an ad-hoc network of writers on these topics. They were religious for the most part. They hosted each other as guest-writers on each other’s websites and some of the bloggers got book deals. The books, alas, were disappointing as they read exactly as blogs did and often did not feel like anything new. But they were there. The writers had speaking gigs and conference addresses. I attended none of these. I just know they existed. I also was under the impression that everyone’s writing career was on the rise and I am surprised now to see how much of the work just vanished.

It is normal for fame to flash and fade, and I find myself wondering if the internet version is a spark of even quicker death. It is not just that the writers seem less prominent, but many of them took down their sites. Even a website that I wrote for disappeared, a fact that I discovered when I was looking for a particularly well-written extended metaphor that Tim Atkins wrote. I get it. I, too, have deleted most of what I wrote for the web. I have a kill clause on just about everything I put on the internet too. In 2018, this post will not be here.

They were good writers and the internet feels a bit emptier for their absence. This feels unexpected. Like how you know everyone is going to die eventually but are shocked to find out that an acquaintance’s day already passed. No, no, no: It is too soon. Everything is ephemeral, and while it feels like a death, it isn’t, it is just the world shifting and moving. The internet, in this mass-distribution form, is young. There is no reason to assume permanence except in the ways that it facilitates memory of the people using it. Unless, of course, it is incriminating, and then everyone screen-capped it.

Perhaps the writers deleted the websites when they too resolved that part of their life. Perhaps they fatigued of mentioning their troubles, and found the best way to move on was to cut ties with, and then delete, their art. The internet, and public discourse at large, has a nasty habit of transforming everyone and everything into two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, and who wants theirs to be of intensely private and difficult matters? What happens when your public persona (as many of these writers were) is associated with a redemptive narrative around screwing up? Is it uplifting when it is fresh, only to feel like a tether later?

Some of the norms that people practice are informed by journalism, which act as if everything were still printed on paper and delivered on our front porch. If you consider writing art, then the internet can be more venue for performance than publishing house if one is liberal with the delete key.

I’ve come to consider blogs more a savored conversation at a cafĂ© and less like a book on the shelf. Perhaps like a piece of discarded correspondence, only the opposite of Onegin’s letters to Tatiana Larina: the sender, not the recipient, determined they were too dangerous to keep and tore them apart, shoving the pieces in the stove*.

*Or so is done in a movie adaptation. There’s no such reference in the original versed novel.

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Notes from the Hegemon



I remember when the planes hit the towers. I was a sophomore in high school in Academic Support, the euphemistic name the district gave study hall, making up a Global History quiz I missed. My teacher, Ms. Zalewski, turned on the TV. One of the World Trade Center towers was on fire. She was somber. I assumed it was an accident and was astonished that the plane couldn’t miss the building.

I went the band room for the second half to practice clarinet. Soon, I was the only person in the hall. My (to this day!) dear friend Laura pulled me out and told me a second plane hit the other tower. It was then that I, and maybe everyone else, realized it wasn’t an accident. I remember thinking, “Our turn.” See, I’d spent my youth watching coverage of bombs in the Balkans, bombs in Israel and Palestine, mines in Africa and Asia, bombs seemingly everywhere. Violence seemed to be the way of the world. I’ve never met anyone who also had this reaction.

My countrymen were scared. Isolated by oceans and protected by the strongest military in the world, this sort of attack struck everyone else as unfathomable. We reacted. Oh, did we react. We swiftly went to war and we’ve been at war ever since, about half my lifetime.

I watched as we traded civil liberties for a chance at that fleeting feeling of protection. I watched as a group I rarely thought about before – Muslims – suddenly became the denigrated group. I watched as people approximately my age joined the military and hearing about how some of them never came back. I watched as my country opened a detention center offshores, and then another, and then another despite violating war crimes ethics and conventions. I watched as so many of the values I was taught we had as a child were undone in the name of safety and security. Dissenters were unpatriotic. It became thought reasonable to judge an entire religion based on its extremists. White Christians who never apologized for Timothy McVeigh (who is from my area) demanded apologies from Muslims for 9/11, contributing and creating a conventional (if inaccurate) wisdom that Muslims are violent. The surveillance state grew, buoyed by technological advances and the support of a scared population. I felt like I’d lost my country a bit, that this sweet land of liberty was tip-toeing towards becoming a fear-driven police state.

Getting older has been a disenchanting process realizing that we are not now, nor never have been, as good as I thought. As governor after governor (and some of my local politicians) try to block Syrian refugees from settling in their states, I realize this: We’ve learned nothing. This is textbook, exactly what we did with the Jewish refugees and look what happened to them. The terror attacks in France were horrific, as terror attacks always are. Horrific and apparently effective, as politicians are now shifting their rhetoric because they are scared, because they sense their constituents are scared, and exploiting fear is politically profitable. Never mind that this is more or less the goal of Daesh/ISIS.

I had already written letters to several elected officials asking they increase the refugee quotas. I live in a depopulated city near many refugees. My next door neighbor was one. A couple families down the street are refugees. A few blocks over and there are many more refugees. Some of them are Muslim. I love where I live and I have the absolute best neighbors. Then I called the governor, called my Congressman with my telephone as it seemed every public figure on Facebook’s comments were filled with people asking to drive the refugees away. No, no, no, no, no…. not this again.

Listen, I’ve known people with Syrian heritage. Heck, I have kin with Syrian heritage! Some are Muslim. Some are Christian. One is Jewish. Syrians are not a monolith. Everything I know about the Syrian war is that it is absolutely brutal. I can’t read about it. I work on problems of profound human misery for a living and I cannot read about the Syrian War or ISIS/Daesh because it’s too bad for me to cope. I get nightmares for days. I give money to refugee agencies, but that is all I can do as an individual. I rely on forces more powerful than I to make wise decisions and here we are closing the door because of the chance – the chance! – that someone from Syria could cause us harm. The chance that someone born in our own country could cause us harm doesn’t inspire us to more strictly regulate our weapons. The fact that cars are the most likely thing to kill us hasn’t inspired most of us to trade in our keys for public transit. We’re more likely to die from overindulging in our dinners and forgetting to exercise than we are in a terror attack but Syrians are the real threat, and please pass the butter.

Refusing to be afraid is a political act. Walking home at night when you are a woman is a political act when everyone tells you that you are assault bait. Not being anxious going into a “bad” (read: usually Black and usually poor) neighborhood is a political act if you are a white person and your society is structured on fearing non-white people. There is this vein in our culture that anything is justifiable if it could protect us from the people we dislike, as if safety were paramount. It’s completely based on prejudice. Crimes rates have been dropping? Whatever. Immigrants commit fewer crimes? Forget it.

I’m so sick of reading comments on my local news websites written by people using the fanciest technology that humanity has ever known, sitting in the wealthiest country of the world, begrudging letting what ends up being relatively few people to their cushy sphere of prosperity because they don’t want their taxes dollars spent on them. Or because they are afraid of “those people”. “Can you justify the risk” I’ve read, over and over again, “that you or your loved ones might be the target of a terrorist who slips in?” We justify lots of risks all of the time. Yet, here, the risk of one person doing harm to us is so great that we should let hundreds of thousands of people die in the process, because we won’t trust an thorough federal government over our prejudices. We value our lives more than anyone else’s. All of our foreign policies boil down to that. We won’t give up our hegemonic position and we’ll kill or let die anyone who we think might threaten that.

We are no better than anyone else, but we certainly act as if our lives are. At the time when “All Lives Matter” is the preferred dismissive retort to those advocating for African American rights, we turn our backs on refugees and bomb the Middle East. All lives matter indeed.

I often think back to September 11, 2001, and mourn, “It could have been so different.” If only we we’d been, or could be now, a bit braver. I hold on to optimism that we could find courage from common humanity, that we could be so brave as to be the moral example, that we could be the model of ideal humanity. I cannot make that argument as we close our doors and use our powers and privileges to ruthlessly prioritize our own safety. I cannot make that claim as our elected leaders attempt to push out the vulnerable.

We could do better. May we be brave enough to live with moral courage, instead of deferring to the impulse of safety at all costs. All costs have been too expensive and it is not going to become cheaper.

11/18/15-edited for grammar and typos.

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Filed under Class Warfare, Lessons Learned The Hard Way, Race, Social Justice Commentary

Being a Control Freak is a Futile Endeavor Informed by Unrealistic Expectations

My mother’s advice was solid, “You just have to make sure that they don’t drown, electrocute themselves, or fall from too great of a height.” I had been expressing some sense of being overwhelmed at the responsibility of parenting. My mom’s advice is a version of “You can’t control everything, just sweat the big stuff.” It’s a different message than I see out there, where there seems to be an assumption that parents can and ought to foresee and control all things for their children. Flukes and freak accidents are treated as events that should have been predicted.

The assumption of control is pervasive, to the point where some discourses in our culture expect that we take responsibility for all things existing in our lives. Women apologize excessively. It often seems to me that the retort, “Quit being a victim!” is used to dismiss the significance of one’s experience with being wronged rather than anything else. It’s the cousin of the just-world hypothesis, which assumes that every thing which happens is occurring righteously. If an experience is terrible, the experiencer brought it upon themselves; clearly we can control these things. Except that we cannot. Even the man struck by lightening might have lived if he took another path, but why would he have thought to do so?

I was asked today if I like living in Buffalo. “I do,” I replied. And that was all I said until prompted with another question. I love my life here. I have a fantastic job, my husband has a great job, my daughter is healthy, my home is comfortable and my life is challenging enough that I feel alive and productive. Though if I hadn’t happened to move back to New York State around the time my low-turnover agency had an opening, I would not have this job. The person who helped my husband get his job, a very good, much loved friend of our family who has been nothing but extremely kind to us, was a random roommate assignment his freshman year of college. My daughter was a surprise. My son is a surprise. All of these are correlated to things we did, but the opportunities themselves have a high degree of coincidence. So I am very happy in Buffalo, but all I can honestly say is that she’s been extremely well-timed for me. Your mileage may vary. I could not have foreseen well enough to create this life intentionally.

I have spent much of the last few months reading about predictive analytic tools for homelessness-alleviation program referrals and they are all flawed. There is so much research that comes down to a shrug, and while it is far better than a first-come, first serve system, it is not the certainty that everyone craves. The desire for certainty and predictability is as American as individualism. With the assumption of control also comes the assumption of potential perfection. These are all the unattainable goals. These are the expectations that will disappoint. The more I remember that, the better I am.

And it can’t hurt to listen to my mother.

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