Kitty

Feet tucked underneath, her muscles fan tempting filaments. Thick, anticipating winter, whiteness like snow on a sunny hillside beckons where she lies, and I can’t go to bed. My eyes close for a second’s slumber after days of missing the miracle of falling before dawn, but I am prisoner to warmth that binds me to sofa without care that lack of sleep feels like dying. She doesn’t seek me out this way. This is new.

I would love her black or ginger, but she is snowy with patches of deepest gray, becoming mine after years of resistance to all I have to offer but sustenance and comfort. Her eyes find mine before slitting closed, head leaned into my cupped palm and resting for a moment as though there is no time or empty dish or need, save this. She lowers her head to my lap and sleeps. Will not be coaxed away by offers she recognizes in tone. Won’t follow my gaze to the kitchen with promises of Kitty dessert– will not be moved by incantations of what she’s craved in days past.

I won’t rouse her until I have drunk and saved this moment where I have nothing she wants but me.

If she were human, I would be pathetic and sadder than what I do. But she is feline and we who understand that, know our paths together shine in ways that don’t light reason. We are understood or we are not.

I will find solace under my covers later. In this moment I am tired, sleepy and falling, but in this moment, I am not sad. That’s what you need to know to understand.

When Kitty was a baby and would sleep anywhere but on me.

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The years spent at home after my mother’s diagnosis, locked away in a sense, surprised me. I couldn’t understand how it had been decided for me, because I couldn’t pinpoint the moment where I lost my voice. I surprised myself often throughout those years in moments that I devoted to taking the best care of her that I could, knowing I had to be perfect but that I could only try very hard. Many people think that experience made me a better person. They’ve told me so. I wonder who I would have been without it, if I had gone back to school and done college later in life, instead of taking care of someone who seemed to hate me for reasons I never understood. It felt like trying to achieve the speed of light on a tricycle. Science at the time said that was impossible with any conveyance, but I was supposed to achieve it. I couldn’t. I loved her and I wanted to know she loved me no matter what life (and the best we knew how to do within it) did to us. I learned that things can change in ways you’d never expect, and that I should stop wanting. That first lesson was a good one. The second, I’ve spent years trying to unlearn. It’s a seductive coping mechanism that doesn’t work any better than unbridled anger.

I remember making rice pudding for her, just the way I always had over the years since I’d learned how to do it, because I hoped the simple ingredients would sit well in her stomach and the rich vanilla would satisfy her tongue. It broke my heart to see her hate the one thing she could still do after years of sickness — ingest food. How sad to want to lose yourself in the flavor of something that delights you and have no reason not to — not calories or fear of cholesterol or the need to pretend that there’s more than food in the world of pleasure — yet still not be able to.

I was afraid that it was the medication Mom kept tasting, but she insisted it was the horrible hospital food or my cooking. I didn’t want to get her hopes too high, so I made the pudding the night before without telling her, and packaged it into medium-sized containers at home so I could bring more the next day and the day after, if she liked it. There was only one nurse who would keep something for her in their refrigerator, but I never knew when she would be there and I guessed early on that it was probably against the rules. I decided not to depend on that since I was at the hospital every day anyway.

Mom’s doctor, our family doctor, came to check on her most days during her rounds. She knew how upset Mom was with me about the food. She had tried once to explain it to her, that it wasn’t my fault and I couldn’t do anything to alter her hospital meals and I wasn’t necessarily messing up the baked chicken I brought from home. Mom had berated me for getting it wrong, implying that because I was a vegetarian, I didn’t want to cook it anyway and was doing it wrong on purpose. But I had written down every step she dictated to me and made it exactly the way I did at home, when she liked it. The doctor was there the day I came into the room with the rice pudding.

When Mom eagerly tasted it and then plopped the bowl down onto the rolling bed tray, I felt the doctor’s eyes on me.

“You managed to mess that up, too,” Mom said and turned away.

The doctor said, “I’m sure it’s not the pudding. It really is the medication. It’s changing the way you taste things. There’s nothing we can do about that.”

Mom glared at her and then at me. “She usually does a good job with it. She just didn’t make it right this time.”

The doctor looked at me with understanding eyes and motioned for me to follow her to the far side of the room. “That was a good try,” she said. She looked into my eyes and I felt the kindness in her gesture. “Your mother is very upset, but that’s to be expected. It’s not your fault.”

I was angry with myself for letting a tear fall.

There was a time months later, when Mom was home again after another difficult hospital stay. Once more the doctors had warned the family to be ready for the end, only to see her rally and be able to go back to her own bed and familiar surroundings. A couple of weeks before that, at the hospital, I’d had to attend to a problem with one of the drainage bags the surgeons had fitted her with that was collecting some greenish fluid, like bile. I’d sent my sister out to get someone while I put my hands right into the spilled contents and held the bag where it was supposed to be. When the nurse came, she’d stared at me oddly while she got a pair of sterile gloves and put them on. I’d wondered if she thought I might be contaminating my mother, so I caught up with her in the hall after she had fixed the problem, and asked if I’d done something wrong. She said no and walked away.

During Mom’s first days home after that hospital stay, the top of one of my fingers, one that’d had a tiny break in the skin the week of the bag incident, got very swollen and tender. It was turning green. I was dumbfounded but didn’t ask the doctor about it. The thought that it could become some sort of horrible, life threatening infection crossed my mind, but at the time that felt like a very good reason for me to say nothing about it. Someone visiting the house, maybe my sister, saw it and said I should have it looked at. Something inside me was thrilled at the prospect of getting out for at least a little while on my own, just for myself, even if it was only to the doctor’s office. She knew what was happening at home, so maybe I could talk to her a little. I needed to hear something supportive. I believed that a hit of understanding would tide me over for a while, and I thought of it that way, the way I’d heard people talk about illicit drugs.

When I got there and the doctor came into the examining room, she saw immediately that my finger needed work. She collected some disinfectant, gauze, a little knife, and some sterile gloves. As she did this, I mentioned how good it was to get out for a short while. She glanced at me as though she didn’t quite understand. I decided to talk about my finger first. I said, “Do you think it could have gotten infected because I didn’t put on gloves before I tried to fix Mom’s drainage bag a couple of weeks ago?”

The doctor actually took a step back as if she needed the space to keep from hitting me. I froze.

“You cannot catch cancer.”

I was afraid when she said that because I couldn’t understand what she meant. Then in a split second, I realized she thought I’d said something that stupid. I tried to explain what I meant and that I was just wondering if I should have put on gloves first and I was only asking in passing and it wasn’t an important question — but I didn’t think she could hear me anymore.

“There is no way you can catch cancer from your mother.” She frowned at me with so much anger that I started to sweat.

“Your mother is very sick. Ovarian cancer is a difficult disease. You should do everything you can to make her as comfortable as you can. You need to stop thinking about yourself and focus on her.”

“I know,” I said. I hesitated for a moment. “It’s just hard sometimes… she gets so mad at me.”

The doctor collected herself and got to work on my infected finger. “Well, she’s going through something terrible, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” I said.

I realized I’d ruined my chance. Maybe I never had one in the first place and I had misread something, or I was being selfish. It was time to stop trying, so I sat still and heeded the imperative to keep my feelings to myself.

At first I tried to make my face soft in the hope that she would see that I wasn’t such a horrible person, but after that, because I knew I must have deserved it, I learned a new way to berate myself. In my head, I realized that I truly must have been a terrible and selfish daughter and, I went over all the reasons why that was true, and did it better than anybody else could. I became expert in all the ways my inadequacies could be driven home and in all the ways my mother must have been right about the things that were awful about me. No one needed to speak to me that way again. I spent the rest of my mother’s long illness speaking that way to myself while I continued to take care of her.

For a long time I wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t gone to the doctor about that finger. If I’d hidden the infection somehow from other people, and waited.

After my mother’s death, and so many years, I see lots of things in new ways, unexpected ways, healthier ways. But things still get hard when you’re forever denied a way of understanding the truth of an important situation. Knowing the truth can feel as vital as a parent’s love. Sometimes you’re not allowed either one.

When you’ve missed something important or had it taken away from you, you’re lucky if you learn that you really can ask for what you need. But you also have to learn that it doesn’t mean you’ll get anything even close. The asking can be very hard but the possibilty of no –the memory of how “no” feels– can be terrifying enough to leave you frozen. The hardest work is staying warm.

My Response To An Open Letter

An hour or so ago I read and responded to an important point that was linked to on Twitter, made in the post, “An Open Letter to the Wall Street Activists.” That post was written by John Paul Montano, and his opinion can be read in its entirety at that link. Reading it first would clarify the response I had to it, which I share after the next paragraph.

I see much value in what Montano had to say, because history needs the voices of all its people to insure that it carries the truth. My readers will understand my dedication to the powers of empathy to heal us and show us the way to a better future together on this tiny planet, so I know you’ll understand why I wanted to repeat the comment I left at his post. Here it is:

I think the passage of centuries makes it difficult for your issues to be addressed to your satisfaction. As an African-American, I don’t live here because my ancestors came willingly to participate in what was done to your people. I’m not sure how you would want my people to word their query for permission, considering how upsetting it would be to add that insult onto our existing injury, but I still understand your point. I understand it more than you know.

Perhaps, more than the asking of permission, you might be better served at this date, with a public, all-encompassing acknowledgment of the grievous injustices that have been done to your people over these centuries. I believe you deserve an apology for it, and also thoughtful reparation, but I don’t think either of us should hold our breath for that kind of thing.

The reluctance the “powers that be” have in truthfully acknowledging the scope of the issues that have plagued my people in this country, along with their reluctance to discuss logical ways to make it right,  illustrates the kind of thinking that impedes the conversation you want to have. 

Unfortunately, human beings of countries all over the world have stolen lands from indigenous peoples. With so much history having passed, how could anyone ever say for sure who is the rightful “owner” of what place? In that one regard alone, yours are not the only people to have suffered greatly.

A last point to ponder: I wonder, who else could write something like this — someone whose past in this country is just as painful, but whose story we don’t know because we are each more familiar with our own, the ones our own ancestors lived?

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I wonder if my response had a bit of a knee jerk in it. I’m open to a respectful conversation about that and the original points Montano made. What are your thoughts on this?

There’s Still Some Catching Up To Do…

Photo by Fortherock via Flickr

There were tears in my eyes tonight while I watched the film, “Refrigerator Mothers” on the PBS program, POV.

From the 1950s and persisting as late as 1990, psychology students were learning that autism was a result of mothers not bonding with their children — of them being detached and frigid. It’s heartbreaking to know how wrong so many experts in the medical profession could be, and how much anguish “experts” brought to mothers of autistic children in the decades after these disorders were recognized, but before autism was more correctly identified as having neurological origins.

During one of the film’s personal stories, I felt more than compassion. I felt a kinship of sorts because I recognized the mother’s feelings of confusion and underlying disbelief, eventually culminating in anger at the way she had been harmed by the therapy professionals subjected her to for the frigidity disorder she never had to begin with. I recognized some of the struggle in her story because it reminded me of the difficulties that high functioning disorders, such as Aspergers, bring to a marriage, and how spouses (disproportionally women, possibly because there is a higher instance of these disorders among males) can be mistreated by counselors who don’t understand how these problems present.

From different marriage counselors, I heard that I was being too sensitive and much too quick to label my ex-husband’s behavior as abusive. That was probably due to his honesty, sincerity and intense sadness as he recounted to them how he felt in our marriage and the happiness he wanted to us achieve. Our counselors didn’t have the skill to figure out that he was unable to comprehend or adjust any contributing factors in his own behavior, or they took much too long to figure it out. On the other hand, there I was — anxious, upset, and close to anger about being mistreated and unheard. They decided I must be the one with the problem. Therapists told me that the answer was for me to listen to my husband more, and to practice talking less. My ex would be much happier by our next appointment, because a person with Aspergers often mistakes their one-sidedness in conversations and other social situations as being the ideal way relationships should be. The only way I survived those weeks was to shut down my emotions and try to stop wanting anything. My husband couldn’t not have Aspergers, but my life changed, or shall I say was given back to me by degrees, after he was correctly diagnosed and I realized that I wasn’t a horrible person who couldn’t see how her horribleness was hurting the man she loved.

Why Are You Going Away? by Beni Ishaque Luthor via Flickr

Because high functioning autism wasn’t being diagnosed when many of today’s affected adults were children, they and the spouses who fall in love with their intensity and concentrated attention without knowing what it could mean, can find themselves in a quagmire that is often exacerbated by inexperienced professionals who don’t specialize in those conditions. No wonder a part of me identified with the women in “Refrigerator Mothers” who tried so hard but were criticized and mistreated by the psychological community that should have been helping them to cope.

It seems to take a long time for certain perceptions to change, but if we can share our stories, whatever they may be, we can reach out to each other here in cyberspace and at least offer solidarity while we wait for the professionals to catch up.

 

 

My New Birthday Card From, Sis!

My sister, Angela, is so cool!

I was sorry that I couldn’t think of a fun card for her birthday earlier this year, but she came up with a great one for me based on one of my favorite movies, “It Might Get Loud.” You can find a post I wrote last May about this movie here.

Here’s my new birthday card from Sis (lucky me!):

Thanks, Angela!

“You Can Never Know a Man Until You Fight Him”

“You can never know a man until you fight him.” A line I heard this afternoon in “The Matrix Reloaded.”

©Warner Bros.; Photo: Jasin Boland

Can true wisdom be found in a Matrix Movie? When more weight is given to the source than to what is (or can be) learned, much can be missed. I was struck by that line of dialogue and, in the moment it took me to consider it, the memory of the first fight I had with my husband flooded across my mind. I clearly saw two truths. One about him that I couldn’t have understood at the time, but still should have known meant that danger lay ahead. And one about myself that delineates how the person I want to be, has melded with the person that I am. Because of those thoughts, and the urgency with which these words are spilling out of me, I’d say the answer to my question is yes. It’s possible to find wisdom anywhere, if you’re ready to see it.

The heartbreak of this incident lingers because heartbreak does. I’ve turned down its volume but, in a way, we are our memories, and they rarely go away. What’s more important now is that my doubts about how I handled that situation have gone, and I no longer need to look outside myself for validation that I didn’t do anything awful. I’d rather be a bit scathed in a battle I didn’t start, than be crushed in a defeat that I did nothing against. This means you do or say things that will hurt. This is what a fight is, and why it’s generally best not to start one. 

This is what happened:

My mother’s house and most of her belongings had come to me when she died. Very early in our marriage, my husband and I had agreed to take her dishes out of some kitchen cabinets to make room for his kitchen things. He had convinced me that the beautiful old dishes would be safe in the attic if we boxed them up and marked them clearly.

I had been crouching in front of a cabinet, carefully taking out glassware and dishes, then setting them before him on the table to wrap in newspaper and pack into boxes. I was crouching again to redistribute what was left in order to make the best use of the space. I saw him begin to stack dishes.

“No. Remember: don’t stack the dishes before you wrap them,” I said. ” You want to wrap each one separately so they don’t get scrapes.”

“The dishes don’t need paper between them.”

“No, honey, they do– to keep them from scraping.”

“I’m not scraping them,” he answered. “Why do think I’m trying to mess them up?”

“I don’t think you’re trying to mess them up. It’s just that carrying the box, or moving the boxes in the future, can make the dishes move and rub against each other. There’s plenty of newspaper. I want to wrap them so they don’t touch.”

He smiled and shook his head a little. “Ohhh,” he said, “now I get it.”

I sensed something. I’m used to the way under-the-belt punches rear back and arc their way toward you. I’ve always marveled at how much a verbal altercation mirrors a physical one. He knew I’d had a lot of experience with people who lob that kind of abuse, and because we had talked about many of our experiences with that sort of thing in both our lives, I didn’t expect it from him. I hoped the moment would pass as something I misread.

I glanced at him as his smile disintegrated into something like resignation tinged with sadness. I was confused but I didn’t know what to say. He said, “Now I see why your mother acted that way.”

I kept looking at him and said, “What?”

“The way you’re acting here. This must be why she was always so upset with you.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“That. Right there. And this having to be exactly your way, like nobody else can do anything right.”

I stood up. “The dishes are going up into the attic because it’s the right thing to do and it’s a good idea. We’re making space to bring your things into the kitchen, because our lives are together now and we’re starting our future. There’s nothing in there about you not being able to do anything right. Me wanting newspaper around the dishes is about vaguely remembering something from Martha Stewart, and wanting to take the best care of these old dishes that I like and want to keep for the future. Don’t you bring up stuff about my mother that doesn’t have anything to do with this.”

“The way you’re acting has everything to do this. If you acted this way with her, I don’t blame her for being so mad at you all the time.”

I was so shaken, and mad, I didn’t know what to say, so I crouched back down and tried to get back to the task.

He continued, “I’ve been here before. I can’t believe I did it again.”

“What are you talking about!” I was raising my voice.

“Yeah, well,” he paused as he dutifully wrapped newspaper around a dinner plate. “I didn’t think marriage would be this way with you. But I should have known by what you said about you and your mother.”

My gears fell into place, and something about the scene came into focus for me. “You need to stop dragging my mother into this. I don’t know what your problem is, but you should know better. Any idiot knows that those are fighting words. If you want to start a fight, fine; but you better know I’ll finish it. And you better believe I know how. You live in a glass house.”

“See! There it is again! You don’t even make sense.” I couldn’t believe how self-righteous he looked. Like he absolutely knew in his heart that he was right. Like all the logic in the world supported what he was saying to me. He went on, “Why are you starting a fight?”

“I didn’t start this, but if you don’t want a fight you should just stop. We can both be quiet and just finish what we’re doing.”

As I worked on consolidating more space in the cabinet, and forgetting his words, he was quiet for maybe a minute. I could hear him letting out long breaths, and I saw his movements across the room in the corner of my eye. Then he spoke again. “You know, you don’t get to decide that I don’t talk.

“I think it’s best that neither of us is talking right now.”

“It’s not my problem that you don’t want to hear how you are. This isn’t the way you act in a marriage. Maybe if your mother had talked to you about it before…”

“I’m not gonna warn you again. Something is really wrong with you if you don’t know what you’re saying! But mention my mother one more time, you stupid asshole– one more time and I’ll finish this! Think! Do you really want me to shut you down? Think! How would I do that?” I went through the motions of moving things in the cabinet, because I had started to shake and I didn’t want to drop anything.

“So you’re too good for an honest conversation about your problems.”

“Shut up!”

“So this is how it is? Your mother was right.”

“Yeah,” I said. “As right as your father was about you, you asshole.” I didn’t stand up as I looked him right in the eye. “Why don’t you talk to me like a man? A real man wouldn’t be trying to mess with me like this! You’re not even man enough to talk to your wife without trying to browbeat her. What is it? The only way you can feel big is to manufacture a fight out of nothing so you can win something? Maybe that’s what happened to your other marriages! And I fell for your ‘Oh, I’ve learned so much’ rap. You’re still just as fucked up as your father ever thought you were if you think you can fuck with me like this! Asshole!”

He looked wounded. I saw his eyes glass over as he put down the dish. “You could say that, and you call me an asshole?”

“You started it.”

“I didn’t say anything like that to you.”

“If you believe that, then you weren’t listening to yourself. I’d have never told you that stuff about my life if I thought you could be so cruel. I guess you didn’t realize that you’re not my parent. If you start something with me, I’m gonna finish it. Asshole!”

He looked at me as if I was a stranger, then he walked out of the room. It took me a few minutes to begin my pre-programmed descent into self-doubt.

I know now that he wasn’t able to comprehend what that fight was about, and it’s harder now for me to understand why we recovered from it. Neither of us knew about his condition at that time and I still had very low self-esteem so, like many emotionally abused people, I talked myself once again into accepting the misplaced blame in order to make things better and move on. He and I went on for a few more years after that, and I was different. I always tried reason when he made our disagreements become strange, but I only ever raised my voice again to try to be heard. I suffered a lot, but I didn’t fight him or use tit for tat, though he would tell you I did. Today I can say that I don’t see any wisdom in giving up my fighting instinct.

His part in that fight was truly about who he was, and he showed that he wasn’t for me. The why of it doesn’t matter. How I handled that fight was about who I truly was. I can see that some could be offended by what the woman I was said to him, and how she said it. That’s fine. I embrace her now, because I’ve grown to like her very much. She is me.

Photo by Jennuine Captures via Flickr

Can I Be Illuminated?

Some dismiss the horror I feel when I hear about new cruelties or atrocities. I don’t ask, but I wonder if they think I’m unaware of how the world is– that some people inflict harm. Do they think it’s better not to notice, or to notice with a shrug or a smirk? They say, “Why are you upset? These things happen all the time.”

As a little girl, art opened my eyes. I learned a lot from movies, even from some that may not be the most thoughtful artistic works. They sparked my curiosity about people and history, and this learning is responsible for a lot of my toughness. Like the stones that make up the oldest walls, my bones are strong and well placed. Like those walls, I’ll be here as long as time allows. Unlike them, I’ll feel the horror when I see or hear about cruelty. I’m not someone who can’t comprehend violence or refuses to. I can. Each new one I hear about breaks my heart, but it heals. And is broken again. I know I’m not alone. 

As a child, I watched movies from the 1940s and 1950s on television, though I preferred ones from the 1930s. As an adult, I can tell you why– that many of them were made to take people’s minds off the Great Depression. They took my mind off things in my tiny life that hurt in ways I couldn’t yet express. The time to forget became important to me as soon as I found that it was a space I could slip into. I wondered why the bright faces looked so little like mine, but I would let that thought pass as I floated away into whatever story they invited me into. Then I fell in love with James Cagney, admiring the toughness he showed, but wanting him to stop hurting people in the gangster movies that showed me another side to the times I thought always ended so nicely. Even as a child, I tried to not be shaken by those terrible things I didn’t quite understand except for the pain they could bring, but art was slowly illuminating these things for me and building that toughness into my bones that some mistake for weakness. You have to be tough to let yourself see, and tougher still to mull it over and let yourself understand how and why these things happen.

My inspiration for writing this, was Liev Schreiber‘s film, “Everything is Illuminated,” adapted from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. Watching it illuminated much for me. More about how to say what I’m saying to you here, than about the movie’s themes, which were familiar to me, though no less powerful. This film is a comic, sometimes serious work– poetic and full of nuance and color, and heartbreak. As I took it in, drying tears here and there after the light of a specific line or wordless moment, it reminded me that my ability to feel that way has come into question all too often. I get weary of being thought of as “too much” or too tender a soul. Each of us has his or her own way. Why do my feelings offend?

What was illuminated for me while watching this film– is how much I want to be understood. Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to that is how some confuse understanding with being persuaded. Where understanding takes a person (from the point that they do it) is their journey alone. I don’t want to be someone’s captain just because they understand me. I don’t want to dismiss, anymore than I want to be dismissed. 

I remembered something while watching this movie. It may explain how I see, to anyone who would care to understand: At age seven, as I watched more and more movies from World War II and The Korean War, I would ask my mother questions about them. After asking why I was watching them again, when there must be cartoons on some channel (I liked those, too, but not all the time), she’d explain any point I hadn’t understood. Eventually, I asked about the draft letters that began with, “Greetings.” Did they really mean a man had to go into the army and to war? She answered yes. I asked if women had to. She answered no. I felt a rush of relief, then extreme guilt because I had a brother. I concocted a plan, not telling my mother, somehow understanding the theory of plausible deniability at that young age. When he became a teenager, I would watch the mail carefully and hide the letter when it came. I’d keep our toy box, with its heavy lid, as clear as I could so my brother would be able to fit into it when they came for him. I thought they’d never think to look for him there. 

I thought no person should be forced to deal with something as scary as bombs and guns in real life. Those things should only be for movies or television or books– stories like Rod Serling’s on The Twilight Zone, or tales of Superman, or history, so we can see what not to do. I didn’t think this eloquently, but I thought it. This was in my mind and in my soul. The only difference between this part of my younger self and me now, is more experience, knowledge and vocabulary. This is still who I am.

Did I illuminate anything about myself for you here? Is there anything about you that people don’t seem to understand? 

Can Anything from Donald Trump Teach Us About Empathy?

A question came to mind while watching a recent episode of Celebrity Apprentice, but before I explore it, I should make it clear that I don’t like Donald Trump as a person. I don’t know enough about him to make me hate him, but I’m definitely not behind anyone who aims to distract citizens with ridiculous misinformation masquerading as serious inquiry. He’s obviously not a stupid man, yet he attempted to cloud a crystal clear fact about President Obama, instead of using his far-reaching voice to illuminate any number of very real injustices in our world that could benefit from public scrutiny. If one can get past the Donald aspect of it, I do think that Celebrity Apprentice is entertaining at times but mostly helpful to job seekers at any level. It’s valuable to understand what employers want from us, and how to go about thinking that way when necessary, especially in Apprentice’s forum of selling things to the consumer, since the jobs that utilize these skills are the ones in increasing supply. (The hippie in me hates that last sentence, but it’s hard to pay the rent, or the water bill and the property taxes, or eat, without a job.)

Marlee Matlin Photo by Larry D. Moore

I prefer Celebrity Apprentice to the one with the regular folks vying for the job, because it’s easier to see celebrities lose without feeling bad about it. Each of the charities they are competing for is worthy, and just mentioning them gives viewers a chance to learn more about them and consider giving to them if they can, but it’s not sad when one of the celebrities gets fired. I watch this program, almost study it, because as a human being and as a writer, I’m very interested in the differences and similarities there are between us all. This show is like a microcosm of human behavior under pressure, and another great way to people watch and take notes.

The question that came to me, caught me off guard and made me turn off the episode to ponder it. It goes something like this: What makes it hard for some people with lots of money and more so-called sophisticated tastes, to understand when they’re insulting people who work middle class jobs? On the surface, the answer seems obvious, but it didn’t strike me that way in this specific case. I don’t think these people would think to insult those who struggle to eke out a living. If they would never do that, then why tolerate such an insult to anyone? Why didn’t they notice? I think that’s more my question. Here’s what happened:

Meat Loaf Photo by Mr. Mushnik

In a commercial to extol the new wider availability of a specific information product, Meat Loaf came up with the character of a police officer who recovers a stolen vehicle and then goes looking for doughnuts. (You know, the old chestnut about police officers hanging out at the doughnut shop.) This isn’t the most offensive thing anyone could think of by a long shot, I know, but the task was to come up with a commercial that could be successful with the general public.  Marlee Matlin, who was the project manager and whose husband is a police officer (which broadens my question), goes along with this idea without hesitation. It’s entirely possible that Star Jones, the other person on their team, would never give this aspect of their commercial a second thought, although I’m sure she would gladly ignore it to benefit her position, even if she had. My own father was a police officer, but even so, I don’t think that all people in any profession or group automatically deserve immunity from being the subject of humor. Still, I immediately understood that while one gives voice to all ideas while creatively brainstorming, this doughnut thing wasn’t going to work for them– unless they wanted to offend someone. A lot of someones.

How could Marlee Matlin have missed this problem? Meat Loaf seems like a sensitive guy (from what I’ve seen on this series) so what was missing in his thought process? Was their cluelessness here more about how and where they make their living? Or was it about personality type? Am I feeding into an increasingly shrill shouting match between social ‘classes’ by merely bringing this up? I hope not, because I think it’s about empathy.

A conversation about this feels important on more than one level, but I prefer to look for answers by digging down deep into an issue and searching for some roots, not just the shoots that grow up out of it. Looking at it that way, I’m inclined to believe that this is more about society’s attitudes toward empathy in general. I think a lot of the backlash against political correctness is about it being more of a band-aid, or a shield, than a careful reflection on the meaning of empathy. Considered on its own, without regard to how one is seen by others, empathy isn’t widely seen as being an important subject. A lot of what we say and do collectively these days, from politics to gossip and what is and isn’t considered news, doesn’t have very much to do with thinking about other people’s feelings before we share our thoughts or do our deeds.

It might help to think of empathy as a muscle. Very often it’s not so much that we as individuals don’t have the capacity for it, as it is that many of us just choose a flow to go along with and then don’t take much time to focus on strengthening this vital part of our core. And we all know what happens when you don’t exercise a muscle. It doesn’t respond so well when you really need it.

Happy Birthday Jasmine, From Mom

One morning I woke from a dream with the feeling that I had just seen my baby daughter for the first time. That was about twenty-six years ago and my girl wouldn’t be born for another year, so she didn’t exist for me yet in any form but the egg that would supply half her genetic material. But later, on the day of her birth exactly twenty-five years ago today, I felt that it really was her that I had conjured up in that dream.  

I named her Jasmine, and her stomach was laid onto mine at 12:41 pm on Sunday May 4th 1986. She held her head high, for a newborn, and her eyes were wide open and trained on me. She blinked once or twice in a blasé manner before seeming to decide that the person to my right might have a better idea of what was going on. Recognizing that this wasn’t the case, she turned back to me, and lowered her chin for a moment. A moment later she lifted her face and eyes to me once more and seemed to wait for an explanation of what had just happened, or for me to say something intelligent, or at least interesting. I was in a bit of shock at having just had an entire person come into the world through me, and instead of feeling powerful and capable of just about anything, it occurred to me that I had prepared nothing whatsoever to say to her. Was I supposed to? It hadn’t occurred to me that she would expect words of wisdom, or a song and dance or anything more than my mere presence. After a another minute or two, she laid her cheek against me and remained quiet, but very alert for hours. I think it was a very important thing that on the car ride home later that day, at about 7:00 pm, she was peeping up out of her blankets and her car seat at the trees and sky speeding by through the window above her. Her head kept moving as she tried to focus on the changing scenery, and when her grandfather, who was driving, stopped at traffic lights, her eyes got big as saucers, and her mouth formed a perfect “O.” I knew then that this child would need to be entertained, but I was still in shock and not up to the task. For the next few hours the déja vu pointing to my dream was unshakable. Later on, Jasmine finally got hungry enough to start screaming about it, but until then my dream from the year before gnawed at me as I tried to behave in a motherly fashion in front of familial onlookers, and probed my mind for some missing piece of information that is still, even at this late date, out of my reach.

In the dream, I was in the front passenger seat of a car parked at a gas station. The driver seemed to be off paying for gas and other things at the Quick Mart, while I held a very small baby in my lap. I knew in the dream that she was a girl even though she was wearing a plain t-shirt and diaper, and her hair, although full with glossy dark curls, was too short to telegraph her gender. She was my daughter and obviously less than a month old, but she was telling me to find her other shoe. I felt around under my seat, looked in the other front seat, looked all around the dashboard ledge–but no tiny blue sneaker to match the one on her other foot. She let out an exasperated sigh and told me to try the glove compartment. I tried to open it, but it wouldn’t budge. I told her I needed the key, but I didn’t have it. She shook her little head at me and sighed deeply again. “You know you’re supposed to take care of me,” she said in her tiny but authoritative voice. I said I was sorry. She just stared at me and blinked. I wanted someone to come quickly, as if I could be more intelligent if someone else was around to help, but as I slowly began to wake up, I wanted to spend more time with this portent of my future. I clung to the sight of her beautiful little face even as it disappeared into the ether with its expression of mildly amused disapproval.

In real life, as my baby daughter grew, she liked two things more than anything else. Going bye-bye, and eating. In that order. If she was at home, she demanded to be fed every thirty minutes. (I could have fed triplets on the mother’s milk that she ‘projectiled’ every time I burped her.) If we were out of the house, it took her three hours or more to remember food. My shock at motherhood wore off after those first few weeks and I became her tour guide through life, pointing out cars when we waited for buses at the beginnings of our excursions, and explaining the internal combustion engine to her to the best of my ability, along with the particulars of the life of the long distance trucker. She hung onto every word when I talked to her about all sorts of things while we were out in public (and to quite a few of them when we were at home, especially when I was feeding her) as if she knew that someday she would understand exactly what I was saying, and she could barely wait. I would ask her to repeat things from the time she was barely able to sit up on her own, and she moved her lips and made wonderfully studious expressions to honor my attempts to educate her, and to keep me engaged so I would do it over and over again.

Now Jasmine is a wonderful adult of whom I am very proud. She’s still active and smart, and loves to learn, but for years, of course, she has thought it best that I listen more than I talk. That may be the most important part of “being a mother” or of simply “being a parent,” now that I think of it. As a proud parent, I have many more interesting stories to tell of our adventures together, but I’ve only told this much here because this is her birthday card. She isn’t sentimental about cards and doesn’t care about them. I am sentimental, so this is my compromise. She’ll be happy that I saved a tree, and that she doesn’t have to save this in a drawer. And that it isn’t sappy. I’m happy because today is her birthday, and I got to write this for her. It’s a way of saying that I love her. (Even though she already knows.)



The Blackberry Dumpling Incident

Dena brought a large box out into the dining room, where her guests were gathered around her table at the end of the evening’s meal. She bobbed from the knees like an excited schoolgirl, and smiled with eyes wide, as she introduced the object to her friends.

“We’re so lucky that Joaquin has a friend in Seattle who invents things, and let’s us be his guinea pigs!”

Joaquin beamed as his wife effortlessly brought the box to the table, and set it down inside the perimeter of coffee cups and dessert plates with half eaten pound cake slices bathed in pools of strawberries in custard sauce. She moved to open the top of the box, but he touched her hand and motioned for her to wait. She sat down again by her own plate, and listened as he spoke. “Andy’s come up with some cool things before, maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but still great things. But this one — he’s outdone himself this time. He’s still wondering about it, but his wife and family, and us — we’re all sure he’s going to be famous for this!

“The point is, that we are his guinea pigs and we’d like you to be, too! But rest assured, it’ll be fun, and it’s not in any way dangerous. He wants us all to know that he hasn’t used anything like microwaves, or whatever that is in cell phones that we’re supposed to be careful about. He’s not even sure why the components he put together make it work. He just knows that they do. He calls it a Comprehensor.” Joaquin stood up and opened the box. He drew out a large, hard, grayish cap that looked much like a smoother and less angular sort of bicycle helmet, and put it on his head. He stretched out his arms and said, “Ta-daaaa!”

Some of his guests laughed outright. Some twittered about how ridiculous he looked in it. Dena was still smiling while she shushed her guests a bit and said, “Come on! It’s what it does — not what it looks like!”

Joaquin took off the cap and put it down beside his plate. He removed the box to the floor by the wall, and looked at Dena’s sister, Vicky. “To help illustrate what the Comprehensor does, Dena got your mom’s recipe for Blackberry Dumplings, and made some to augment our meal.”

Vicky looked as if she had just smelled something odd. “Excuse me?” she said.

“I know, I know,” Dena said patting her sister’s hand. “I was the only one in the house who loved Mom’s Blackberry Dumplings, but trust us.” She reached out to her husband, and he placed the Comprehensor in her hands. Then she told him, “We’ll get this on while you get the dumplings.” She paused, holding the cap in her hands, asking her sister with her eyes. Vicky sat still and said nothing as her sister gently placed the Comprehensor on her head.

Joaquin came back with a small plate of the dreaded dessert, putting it next to Vicky’s plate of pound cake. “It’s worked every time we used it, but if it doesn’t this time you’ve at least got cake to make the flavor go away.”

Vicky was tight-lipped for a moment, but finally said, “I take it that this thing is supposed to make the Blackberry Dumplings taste better?”

“Yes,” said Dena, “because I’m sitting next to you, and I like them.”

“I see a practical joke coming on!” said Dena’s boyfriend, Bill, laughing. “I can’t just sit by and let this happen. Don’t eat it, Vicky!”

Dena stopped smiling. “I would never do something like that. It’s just easier to explain what it does, if we show you first. It’s worked every time.”

Vicky shot a quick look at Joaquin, and he stopped smiling, too. The three of them were the only ones who seemed to have lost touch with the humor of the situation. Before the uncomfortableness took complete hold of the room, Vicky went ahead and lifted a spoonful of the dumpling with blackberries, closed her eyes, and put it in her mouth. There was a quietness, combined with breathy snickering and prickly anticipation, throughout the room as they all waited for whatever came next.

“What the… ,” said Vicky. She chewed, then swallowed. “This is a joke! What’s in this? How did you make it taste so good?”

The room came alive again as everyone began to speak at once.

“Wait. What just happened?”

“It is a joke, right?”

“How does it do that?”

“Is that really her mom’s Blackberry Dumplings?”

“Okay, somebody explain to me what just happened!”

Dena caught their attention as her sister continued to eat the plate of dumplings. “That’s what it does! The Comprehensor helps you understand what another person feels, as long as they’re physically close to you, like I am to Vicky right now. She can taste how good I think Mom’s dumplings are!”

Bill watched Vicky use the spoon to scrape her plate clean, and struck by the sight, he turned to Dena, “She’s sitting next to me, too–how can I make it happen with me?”

“You have to precipitate it somehow,” Dena answered. “That’s why we used the dumplings. Try asking her a question, or just mention something you feel strongly about.”

Vicky stopped eating and looked expectantly at Bill. She waited for him to think of something.

He smiled, then his smile faltered as he looked down at what remained of his dessert. Softly, he said, “The Three Stooges.”

There were chuckles around the table, and though his skin was the color of a golden brown caramel, the blush in his cheeks could still be seen.

Vicky took his hand under the table, and leaned in to her boyfriend, looking him in the eye. “The Three Stooges are funny!” she said, her excitement clear to everyone. “Watching them is like being very young again, when life was simpler…” She giggled, and took off the cap. “Now you try!”

Joaquin was beaming again, and their dining room was filled with sounds of excitement and the murmur of imminent possibility. In turn, they were each trying the cap, to have someone understand why they felt what they felt, to know that their point of view would be understood, even if later it wouldn’t be agreed with — it would at least, for now, for always, be understood.

After nearly an hour, the cap came to the last friend at the table, Annette. As she stared at it in her hands, the others wound down again as they had for each of them, quieting as the focus shifted entirely to her, waiting for her to take her turn. She lifted her chin and sniffed as she turned it around in her hands and finally placed it on the table.

“What’s wrong, Annette?” Joaquin asked. “Don’t you want to try the cap?”

She looked around the room at the others, and said, “Really? You’ve got to be kidding. You should all have seen yourselves. This thing is so ugly. I wouldn’t be caught dead in it.”

Joaquin searched her face for something, for anything. He opened his mouth, but had no words. As he sat frozen next to Annette, he heard his wife ask her if she was joking. Annette sniffed again as she shook her head, then asked if there was any more cake. Joaquin reached for the cap as his wife slowly got up and went to the kitchen to oblige their friend. He moved to put the cap on, but stopped and only held it in front of his head for a moment, then turned and placed it carefully back into its box and closed the lid.

The dinner party was nearly done, winding down naturally, the way those parties generally do, despite the feeling that there was now something clinging in the air, words unspoken. Later, alone, Joaquin and Dena were happy that most of their friends were delighted with the cap. They decided to tell the good news to their friend in Seattle the next day. Then they wondered why, underneath, they were feeling so uneasy, and they began to search for those words that were still around them that seemed to encroach openness and light, eager to explain what they didn’t want to comprehend, still clinging, like weights.