Working Gals

A few years ago, I was dining alone in a nice restaurant in Irvine that had a cool hipster name like Figs & Branches or Peas & Bacon. I don’t know what it was. I was traveling for work (remember traveling? remember restaurants? *sigh*) and my boss recommended the spot. I got their early in the evening and had no trouble getting a table for one, but by the time I was finishing my meal the waiting area was packed with hungry foodies.

Suddenly, three Indian women appeared at my table. One confidently sat down and the other two hovered for a moment, watching my face for my reaction. The confident one said, “you don’t mind, do you? It’s too long of a wait and you look like you need company.” I was shocked, but also delighted. As an extreme introvert it can be refreshing (if startling) to have someone take all of the “let’s become friends” stuff away and just start an interesting small-talk-free conversation with you. I smiled and introduced myself and the other two women sat down.

They were younger than I was. I’m guessing mid to late twenties to my late thirties. Very quickly, we were discussing our parents expectations of marriage and children. The leader of the group (as far as getting them a table was concerned) was grousing about her mother’s bullying phone calls on the subject. Her sense of humor was wry and she didn’t seem to mind sharing details, so I told them about things my mom has said, as well as some of the questions I have been asked as a childless woman living in Utah. “I wonder who is worse about applying pressure to get married and have kids,” I asked, finishing my wine. “Mormons or Indians?”

“Oh, Indians, definitely,” the confident girl, who was unsurprisingly also the chattiest, said without hesitation. “If your parents are from India, not only to you have to get married and have children, you also have to become a doctor or a lawyer.” The other girls laughed but nodded in agreement.

This blew my mind. “You’re right,” I said. “That is different.”

My parents expected me to go to college, of course. And there was always pressure to do well in school. But I don’t remember there being pressure for me to take on a serious career. In fact, I remember once telling my dad that I wanted to be a veterinarian and he discouraged me. He thought it would be too much science and math and that I wouldn’t be able to handle destroying animals. He wasn’t wrong, but Jesus. I think I was 12. Another time, I was watching Who’s the Boss and I was mesmerized by the character of Angela and the idea that she was so independent and that she made enough money to have both a housekeeper AND and drive a Jaguar! I told my mom I was going to go into advertising. She told me that was a bad idea because it was too competitive. Again, probably not wrong, but I was a kid. Would it have hurt to say, “okay honey, just work hard and I’m sure you will do well!” or something like that.

As I have said before, my parents were actually the most progressive ones I knew in this arena. I knew another girl who, even with a 4.0, was discouraged by her parents to go to college as it would just be “a waste of money” when she didn’t need a degree to be a mom.

This popped into my head this weekend when I read this article from Newsweek. It’s about an early childhood education bill that was defeated in Idaho last week. One Republican representative quoted in the article explained his vote against the bill thusly: “I don’t think anybody does a better job than mothers in the home, and any bill that makes it easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home and let others raise their child, I don’t think that’s a good direction for us to be going.” He soon apologized, basically chalking up the speech to stage fright.

I admit that I don’t know what religion this man belongs to, but Idaho and Utah are very similar places, culturally. And anyway, this isn’t a Mormon problem. It is cultural problem. In my experience, growing up in this culture, there is little value placed on women who work and even less encouragement for women to find rewarding work. I hope it is better than when I was a kid, but it is still a problem. Utah has the second-worst pay gap between men and women right now. The worst state on this metric is Wyomming, another Mountain West state.

The most frustrating part of the article is it seems the representatives who are interviewed view women working outside the home as a tragic CHOICE that is a product of pressure from feminists, when fewer and fewer women have any choice about working for a paycheck. How out of touch are you, not to understand that?

Back at the Twig & Apricot (or whatever), I signed my check and got up to leave. The women asked me to stay. They even offered to buy me another glass of wine to thank me for the table, but I was ready to go. The manager stopped me on my way out and asked if those women just did what he thought they just did and if he should do anything to make it right, gesturing to my already settled check. “Oh no,” I said, waiving my hand limply for emphasis. “It’s fine. They are friends of mine. From work.”

As I went back to my hotel, I thought about how lucky I am to have found a good fit with my career. I like what a do, and every once in a while, they put me in a nice hotel, pay for a lovely meal, thereby creating an opportunities to meet new people who give me something to think about. I parked my rental car and went up to my room to do a little work before bed.

Hit Me with Your Best Shot

I think I wrote a few months back that I participated in the Pfizer COVID-19 study. If not, surprise! That was me! (And 29,999 other people.) I was “unblinded” last week and learned that I received the placebo. Good thing that I told myself to pretend I KNEW I got the placebo all along!

The researchers brought me in for a shot of the real stuff yesterday, which was very nice of them. While I was sitting in the clinic waiting for my dose to thaw I got a breaking news alert that the US officially passed 500k deaths. It was a surreal moment, taking that in while in the process of getting my first vaccine. So heartbreaking and also crazy at how routine this has all become.

I’m grateful I had this opportunity to participate in this research and soooo grateful to have my first shot for realz!

Side note: I was given the shot by a girl named Joy. Could that be more perfect?

Red State Lib Gaurd

I had to take my car to the shop this week for an oil change and small repairs. I have been driving Angus, my metallic grey RAV4, since I bought it new in 2006. Matt has been trying to get me to upgrade, and doesn’t understand why I wouldn’t be excited about getting a new car. I have noticed that people seem to really love getting new cars, but I don’t get that personally. I hate change and I find new things over rated. Besides, I love Angus! I plan to keep driving him as long as possible (though I may reconsider, now that Toyota is coming out with a new RAV4 that is a hybrid with 302 horsepower! Sshh though don’t tell Angus).

Anywhooo… I was at the shop waiting for several minutes for the tech to come and help me out. I was looking around at the other cars and owners to pass the time. I saw a few Republican bumper stickers and was reminded that I live in a red state. Not that it is hard to forget, but I do get to ignore it from my lockdown life, most of the time. That did make me turn and look at my car from the perspective of my fellow Conservative’s eyes. I have this bumper sticker (and I have no intension of removing it; who cares that the election is over):

I have been approached many times about this sticker, but only with positive feedback. I have also seen (from my rearview mirror, while sitting at a red light) many people taking photos of it. I’m sure that plenty of people have flipped me off and and called me a “lib tard” as I drove in front of them. But not to my face.

Then I noticed my air freshener. I hung this up for the holidays, but I haven’t taken in down because it still smells nice. And it makes me feel connected to my German roots. (You see my problem with change and letting things go, right? I have taken down the Christmas tree, if you are wondering.) Seeing it in the car standing in the mechanic’s garage, however, I gasped.

“OMG!” I thought. “All I need is a Comet Ping Pong pizza box in the back seat and I am one of those baby eating liberals that the Q-anon folk are rioting about!”

I was standing next to my car at the time and I looked up to see the tech coming. I dove into the door and grabbed the air freshener and threw it in my purse before she could see it. She gave me a bit of a squinting look, like what was that about? but she didn’t say anything.

It was a silly overreaction, but phew! If I want this car (and my liberal life) to last as long as humanly possible, I don’t need to tempt someone to cut my breaks.

The Gatekeepers

I was in the 7th grade, sitting in class, when I heard my name called out over the intercom, directing me to go to the counselor’s office. I probably went either white or red, I don’t know. I just remember being paralytically shy in those years, and I remember the horror of having this attention directed toward me.

The school counselor, Mr. Larsen, asked me to sit down in his office and he got straight to the point. “I called you down because you made an error on your class registration form for next year. You signed up for shop instead of home-ec. Here, I just need you to fix it on the form…”

He knew it wasn’t a mistake. I knew he knew, because he had the same conversation with my older sister, Sarah, the year before, when she signed up for wood shop.

“No, that’s right,” I said, standing to go, but he wasn’t done with me. He argued that it wasn’t appropriate for me to take this masculine class, reflected on the wonderful experiences I would have in home-ec, and did I even know I would be the only girl? Yes, I did. I assumed I would be. Sarah was also the only girl in her shop class.

The conversation ended with an unsubtle threat. “Fine,” Mr. Larsen said, “but don’t bother coming to me in the fall when you realize you have made a terrible mistake and you need me to save you. This is your last chance to change your schedule.” I nodded to show I understood and left his office with my schedule unchanged.

It would take me years to realize just how crazy that conversation was. This would have been in the early 90s. (As in 1990s, not 1890s, just in case you were wondering.) But I grew up in an aggressively conservative county in Utah, where 99% of my classmates were Mormon. Gender roles are very important in the Mormon church, even to this day. Though I doubt a counselor would be so blatantly sexist to a student now, even in Utah County.

My first class of every day of 8th grade was shop. The class was divided into three sections and all the student rotated through each unit. Our class started with wood shop. Then we had a different teacher in a different space for a unit just called “tech,” which was never clearly defined (We did things like watch movies on the Wright brothers and designed and built balsa wood planes, if you are trying to picture it. Perhaps it should have been called “low tech.”). The last section of the year was metal shop.

I wish I could say this about the experience: It was tough in the beginning because I knew the boys didn’t want me there, but I stuck it out and I earned their respect and by the end of the year no one noticed I was a girl. Or even better: The last day of class they carried me out on their shoulders in appreciation and/or apology, just like in the movie Rudy, but cheering “Rachel! Rachel!” Instead of “Rudy! Rudy!”

That didn’t happen. I had a much harder time than my older sister had. She was already friends with a few of the boys in her class, so I’m sure that helped. She has also always been more emotionally aerodynamic than me, so maybe she got some nasty comments, but didn’t notice or care. I, on the other hand, was stuck in a class of 20 of the meanest 13-year-old boys in the school. A pre-teen boy can be naturally mean, I suppose. But this is the year I learned that year that a group of 13-year-old boys trying to impress one another, one upping each other, and feeding off the combined energy? That’s a special kind of mean. (I also learned a lot of really bad words from those nasty pimply good Mormon boys.)

It was mostly verbal abuse, which I learned to ignore in the moment and process later, at home. I was ugly and probably a lesbian. I was too dumb to know I had signed up for the “wrong” class. Once, I decided to part my hair on the other side at some pre-teen attempt to reinvent myself. That gave them a week’s worth of fuel. I was informed that could change my hair or my clothes but I was still ugly and stupid and always would be. Got it guys, thanks. Mostly I remember the peals of mean laughter, and the grubby nail-bitten fingers pointing at me. So much laughter.

There was some physical abuse. It was mostly getting shoved or tripped, but one time they pushed the spot welder behind me when I was working on some riveting and I didn’t noticed until they set it off and the resulting sparks burned the back of my neck and arms. There was also one time that might have qualified as sexual abuse, but I was the secondary victim in that one. There was a mousey boy in the class who was also teased mercilessly. One day, the boys waited until I walked through door and then one of them grabbed onto the waist band of his sweatpants and pulled them down to his ankles, exposing his underpants. Then, on cue, another boy shoved the “pantsed” boy into my body, nearly knocking both of us to the ground. I felt so bad for that poor kid, but I was also embarrassed and uncomfortable and I burned with shame and humiliation. As you can image, the boys in the class thought this was hilarious. It got a laugh any time someone referenced the incident through the end of the year.

I never complained about any of it; it never even occurred to me. At that age I had the “snitches get stiches” lesson well ingrained. There was no way I was going to speak to one of the teachers and earn even more derision for “narking,” or by proving that I couldn’t handle it. I don’t remember ever wishing I had taken the counselor’s advice, or even considering going to him to beg him to get me out of my situation despite his threat. Part of that was my stubbornness. If Sarah could do it, I no doubt told myself, by God so could I.

I think the lowest moment, however, didn’t involve my classmates. I was in the “tech” unit of the class, which was taught by a student teacher from BYU. The regular teacher was around occasionally, but not often. On the first day of the trimester, the student teacher pulled me aside and told me that I needed to know I was on my own. “Don’t even bother asking me questions,” he said, his blue eyes flashing disgust. “I know what you are up to; I’m not stupid. You are just here to meet boys. I’m not going to help you if you get stuck on a project.”

Yet another conversation that seemed normal at the time that would, in time, stun me with the blatantness of the discrimination. He held to it, also. It was the one and only “conversation” we had. It was the only time he ever made eye contact with me. For the rest of that section, it was like I didn’t exist as far as he was concerned. How could he think I was trying to get a boy’s attention? Has he met these boys? I thought on more than one occasion. Gross.

There were only two people that I interacted with in shop who actually knew what the hell they were doing – the wood shop teacher and the metal shop teacher – and both of them liked me. The first assignment in wood shop was to make a pen set. I carved a small bear – about the size of a tennis ball – and mounted it and a pen holder on a board I routed. I used different types of wood and different stains to make the bear stand out. The wood shop teacher gave me 100% and a compliment on the woodwork. Ten or so minutes passed when he called me away from my worktable and asked me to come back to his desk. I thought I was in trouble (I always reflexively think I’m in trouble) when he told me he had reconsidered my grade. He decided to give me 200% because I made a three-dimensional object, when the assignment only required two dimensions.

The metal shop teacher gave me high marks on my projects, also. I don’t know if he was impressed with my comfort around the shop tools, or just impressed that I survived all the way to the end with those boys, but the last month of the year, he nominated me for Student Citizen of the Month, and I won.

That’s what bothered me, in the end. I knew that I was breaking tradition and pushing back against the predominant culture by taking that class. But I wasn’t trying to upset the apple cart. I was sincerely more interested in the curriculum. I guess I thought, eventually, I would be given a chance to prove myself and that the people who discounted me offhand would see that they were wrong; that I could handle it. I was the one who was wrong. It never mattered if I was talented or skilled. I had stepped out of the chalk circle designating as where I “belonged,” and I was punished for it every day for an entire school year.

After that, I was done with wood working. I shifted my focus to music. I learned to play a couple of instruments and joined the choir. In high school, I auditioned for some plays and I got a talent scholarship to the University of Utah for acting. These were spaces where girls “belonged,” and I stayed safely ensconced in them.

Over the years, I have reflected on my shop experience a great deal. It was the first truly hard thing that I did. I made it through the year and that fact has steeled me when facing other hard things in years since. I am glad I did it, even if I never went near a band saw again. I used to harbor some anger toward the counselor and the student teacher, who were adults at work and should have treated me with professionalism, if not respect. These days, I write that off as just part of the culture I grew up in. I don’t feel anger anymore. What I feel is shame.

Sure, I made it through the year, but I also “learned my lesson.” I never again tried to push into a “male space.” My sister, Sarah, never gave up on the fight. She became Utah’s first female State Sterling Scholor for Science and is a field biologist professor with a PhD now. Yes, her shop experience wasn’t as rough as mine, but she’s endured discrimination and disregard her entire career and never backed down. This is the kind of woman I always wanted to be, and the person I thought I was when I signed up for that class. Then, I got discouraged and I retreated with my tail between my legs.

I’ve had a conversation several times over the past twenty years or so, always with a white Christian cis gendered male. At the heart of this conversation is an argument over affirmative action. The men say some version of, “it’s been long enough. This isn’t the 1920s or even the 1950s. Everyone has a chance to succeed, nowadays. Maybe it isn’t perfectly equal, but if we believe in a meritocracy, the best candidates should get the scholarships and prized spots at the universities/ internships/ clerkships/ jobs, etcetera, and if it is a white man then give it to the white man.” One man said to me, “how long do you expect us (white men) to give you all (women and minorities) a head start in the race?”

Then I try to make a point about the extra challenges that women and minorities face, yes, even now, but I have just received eye rolls in response. I realize that some white men get this. That mousey kid from shop was right there in hell, burning next to me. But I think for most of them, the idea that talent is not enough… intelligence is not enough… the tenacity to work through medical school or law school or bootcamp is not enough… is foreign. The fact is, none of it is enough if you can’t walk in a room where you aren’t wanted – or openly despised – and refuse to leave, no matter what they put you through.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied this brand of endurance in her career. Michelle Obama has this kind of grit. So does Vice President Kamala Harris. I do not. I suspect most people don’t, but only some of us are asked to prove that we could handle it, and most of the white men I know don’t know what that feels like.

I don’t mind being asked to be talented. I’m fine with proving that I can handle the work. I love the idea of living in a meritocracy, where the most talented and relentless achieve the most elite laurels. But a true meritocracy requires gatekeepers with merit. What if the problem with meritocracy isn’t with the candidates competing for a chance to actualize a dream, and what opportunities they had (or didn’t have) access to? What if the problem is the gatekeepers? What if brilliance gets choked out in middle school because the wrong people took it upon themselves to steal its oxygen? The gatekeepers deciding my worth were a bunch of little boys who felt empowered to enforce the gender rules they learned at home and in church. There was also an elderly school counselor nearing retirement, and one sexist twat with half a degree in education from BYU keeping those gates, but the teachers (who should have been the gatekeepers) saw my work gave me encouragement. It just couldn’t compete with the downpour of vitriol from the multitudes who appointed themselves officers in maintaining the established order. Affirmative action isn’t a perfect solution, but it can create a correction. One more chance for someone sidelined for the wrong reason, before it is too late.

Think of all the voices and visions and insights we have missed out on for centuries because only one type of person mattered. It’s more tragic than the burning of the library in Alexandria, which is something I literally cried over when I first learned about it. It’s a colossal loss for all of us, whether we see it or not.

I was thinking about these things as I sobbed, watching the inauguration on Wednesday. A woman of color was sworn in to the second highest office in the land (by the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, I might add). I was weeping with joy and pride, as well as a great deal of relief. And yet, I thought about the men that I have argued with in the past. What is going through their heads, I wonder? Is Kamala the first because she was the first who earned it? The first woman talented, hardworking, and eloquent enough to belong on the dais? Or maybe they don’t see her qualifications. Maybe they think Joe Biden picked her out of a sense of obligation, and women have yet to earn this distinction. That if white men represent 31% of the U.S. population, yet still hold 65% of elected offices, it is because they were the best sprinters in their foot races, head starts be damned. That any woman in this country who is truly talented enough, smart enough, relentless enough, and not Hillary Clinton, could have done it before now, but that woman simply hasn’t come along.

I wonder.

I’m reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming right now. I’ve had it in my stack for a while, but I am really glad I saved it for this moment. Here is a quote from the Becoming documentary. “I am coming down from the mountaintop to tell every young person that is poor and working class, and has been told regardless of the color of your skin that you don’t belong, don’t listen to them. They don’t even know how they got at those seats.” (Leave it to Mrs. Obama to say in under 50 words what it took me most of 3,000 to say.) That would have been so great to hear as a 13-year-old girl who thought that anyone who told me their opinion stated it as fact, even another 13-year-old, must know something I don’t know. Still, it is good to hear it as a 43-year-old woman. I will make a point of repeating it whenever I can to help the kids I know to ignore the self-appointed gatekeepers. If you show them what you can do and it makes no difference, just move on. Keep going; if you want it, go out and get it. Maybe some of us didn’t think they had what it took, but every woman and/or minority who manages to endure the gauntlet and climb out the other side may prove to be a worthy gatekeeper for those coming up behind them, the new meritocracy. In the words of VP Kamala Harris, “I may be the first woman to hold this office. But I won’t be the last.”

Day One

My sister gave me a T-shirt for my birthday in August that read:

In August. As in, the summer.

That’s how bad 2020 was. I wanted that year of my life to end also, but it seemed like a lot of pressure to put on 2021. “Does The Universe know that it is a new year and that we pin a lot of meaning to that change of numerics? Does it care?” I was, of course, looking for an end to the shit show that was 2020. But I didn’t want to put my one fragile egg in that basket.

Before long (but also years later, 2020 was weird that way), November came. I spent election day working the polls at my local precinct. It was a sixteen hour shift indoors, interacting with my fellow poll workers (who were strangers) and hundreds of other people (strangers), helping them to vote. That night, after the last person voted and we secured the machines and cleaned the precinct, I drove – not home – to Park City. I rented an Airbnb for fourteen nights (AKA a fortnight! That’s what that word means!) in order to isolate from my family after that prolonged exposure, “just in case!” It was partly out of my own concern about the COVID risk, but also deciding that A) it was important to me to follow through with the commitment and B) to prove to Matt’s ex that I did give a damn about COVID prevention (an ongoing argument in the family).

It was a one room apartment with no natural light, and the main light in the room was out. I contacted the owner, and she wrote back and said that the guy who did those things for her was busy, but might contact me at some point. (He never did.) I could have gone out to get a light bulb, but I wasn’t about to go out and buy a ladder. So, I moved the lamps around as I did my work and I went for walks to get some sunlight, but it was snowed in and 30 degrees, so those turned out to be short damn walks.

Mostly I sat there, bored and lonely, watching an unhealthy amount of cable TV, and wondering if Steve Kornacki would ever be allowed to change his pants. And, also, crushing a little bit. (Oh, Steve! Tell me more about Maricopa County, you nerdy boy!) It took days, but eventually there were developments. Joe Biden was (finally) declared the winner. A few days after that, Pfizer declared success in the development of their vaccine.

This was of particular interest to me, because I volunteered to be a Guinea pig in that clinical trial! And here they were, saying that their projected effective rate was 95%! I had a fifty/fifty chance of having received that vaccine! (Also a fifty/fifty chance of having received the placebo.) “So, 50% chance of having received a vaccine that was 95% effective equals…” I was talking to myself, obviously, “fuck if I know? Less than 50%? I feel like that’s math done right.” I stayed put in my isolation hovel.

And THEN! a week later Moderna made a similar announcement about their vaccine! And people (still on MSNBC) were saying that vaccinations might be available as soon as December! And, damn me if I didn’t start to have a little hope. Hope that Steve Kornacki’s pants would be donated to the Smithsonian for all to appreciate, and hope that 2021 might be different. Could it be that there was light at the end of the tunnel?

It was somewhere in that time that went home, but also I saw a pin that called to me. So much so, I ordered one for me and another for a friend. It said:

I decided that these would be my “words” (in the Game of Thrones sense of things) for 2021. Because, in addition to copious amounts of fried food and barrels of wine, I ate a lot of shit in 2020. Bags and bags of pungent, gluey, unsalted shit. From The Universe, from the pandemic, from my boyfriend’s ex, from the world in general. I was getting plates of shit served to me on a daily basis, and I was ready to say, “No, thank you!”

And so I got onboard the “2021 Will Be Totally Different!” train and got my ticket punched.

But you know what? I was right to begin with. The Universe doesn’t care if our year changed (aren’t we cute, though? With our fireworks and our kisses and such?). The horror show of last year is not done with us yet. Clearly.

We had Ethan for New Year’s so we took a little road trip to Arizona. It was fun, and we saw some really cool birds and animals (some that I had never seen before) and then we headed back toward Utah. It was January 1st, the first day of my new mantra, and we broke up the driving to Salt Lake City with a night in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Again, we were doing the Airbnb thing, and we had a little spot reserved near the university’s campus. We met the couple who were in the next apartment over as we were coming in and parking our cars. We chatted briefly and mentioned that we would be driving to Salt Lake the next day. The woman exclaimed (with a notably gruff voice) about the length of the distance, but that was the end of the conversation.

It was a cozy spot with only one bedroom so we just piled in. Unfortunately, their sitting space was adjacent to our sleeping space, and the walls turned out to be wet pasta thin, and we could hear every word of their profane conversation. The bedroom had a TV so we found some episodes of Shaun the Sheep (turned up louder and then slightly loud) in the hopes of reminding them that we had a child with us and, also, “Did you notice these walls are super thin? Guess we gotta work together, to coexist, ya?”

They did not take the hint. We wanted to be in bed by 10pm to be fresh for the long drive (about 520 miles), especially because we let Ethan stay up until midnight the previous night for New Year’s. We turned off the TV, but after a bit Matt pounded on the wall to try to send a stronger message.

That had the opposite of the desired effect. The woman exploded with expletives, outraged that we would complain when it wasn’t even ten yet (by minutes), and who did we think we were? It was clear to me from the sound of her voice ( imagine either Patty or Selma Bouvier, without the redeeming qualities) that they had been drinking for a while and that we probably shouldn’t provoke them. At the end of her rant, we heard her say to her man fellow, “Jesus, are the walls that thin?”

Matt said, speaking directly to the wall, “Yes. They are.”

There was a brief pause at that before the couple’s profane conversation started up again, as if they hadn’t heard every word, easing back into their conversation made of words that I didn’t even learn from my sailor father.

There was nothing to do but try to make the best of it. We all went to bed, tucking Ethan in between us. I tried to fall asleep but, tired as I was, it was just impossible. It is annoying enough when you can hear muffled noises coming from the next room, but when you can hear every word? She was ranting left and right, it seemed, about everyone they knew. But there was a moment where she was tearing yet another close friend to shreds, and I was thinking, “Poor girl. She does sound like a mess. I wouldn’t have called her that word, but I do hope she can get her shit together.”

Matt got up and moved to the couch. The next day he said he tried to get my attention, but I didn’t respond so he decided I was asleep. Without my contacts I am blind as a baseball bat so I’m not surprised. And in the dark? Forget it. I was glad though, because he was driving and so it was most important that he got some rest. Ethan was out like a hibernating hive of bees. I shifted to my back and tried to conjure the sounds of the ocean as a meditation, but I suck at meditating. Eventually, as time droned on, I began to think about revenge. For hours. From when we went to bed at 10pm until they went to bed at 1am, I had a lot of time to think about things I could do to them that would give me some sense of vengeance.

I thought about getting up at first light, walking Murphy, and then, upon our return, writing “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” on their windshield in dog shit. I smiled, starting to relax a little. “Finally, a type of meditation that is actually helpful!” It was no good though, I realized, coming back to a state of stress. They would know it was us. It might make it on to Matt’s Airbnb review and that would be bad for us in the future.

Lotion? I could write it in hand lotion! It would take some effort to clean it off. Especially in the cold weather. And I had a bottle with me that I bought but found I was having an allergic reaction to the fragrance… No, no, no. If they are going to know it is us, it might as well be dog shit.

Dog shit, but just on the door handles?

No! They can’t know it is us. Matt rented this place. Any blow-back would be on him. Not me.

That’s when I got an idea. An awful idea. A wonderful, awful idea.

I was thinking about car sabotage and suddenly remembered the time that I last had an issue with a tire. The tire was low, so I filled it up. A few weeks later, it was low again, so I took it in. There was a nail in the tire, causing a slow leak. It had been weeks since I picked up the spike, so who knows when or where it happened?

“Oh,” I told sleepy sleepy me, “that’s bad. So mean and so bad! And anyway, where are you going to find a nail? It’s not like you have one in your purse for just such an occasion (note to future me).” But the idea of it, the thought of this tiny sharp little thing making such an impact… soon? Or in a week or two? It made me smile and relax, and I finally fell asleep.

A few hours later, I was awake. My first thought was of my last thought. It seemed strange that I was still angry after getting some sleep, but I was. I was still in that same crazed place. These people fucked with my family. In 2021. The year when I told myself that I would be done taking shit! I had drawn a line in the sand, and I said, “No more!” And yet, on day one of 2021, these people gave me shit. And I took it. I laid in bed next to my stepson, trying to get some sleep, but taking shit instead. My mind hadn’t changed. I needed to give these people their shit back. Because I am not taking it! I made a promise to myself, goddamit!

This didn’t resolve the issue of the nail. I was still in bed pondering this issue and finally told myself, “Okay, this is the deal. I will walk Murphy up the block and back. If we happen to find a nail or similar, then great. The Universe is on my side. If not, then whatever. The Universe has spoken.”

I got up and went to the bathroom. As I sat on the toilet, shading my eyes from the too bright light, I admired the lovely and fashionable tile work of the shower. I was envying it a bit, actually. But that made me think, “This place was renovated very recently. So… maybe?”

I finished my “bidness” on the toilet and then washed my hands. And then, I got down on my hands and knees to have a look. Having completed enough bathroom remodels of my own, I had a hunch. There, under the sink, below all of the new furnishings, I could see some of the older pipes, and there, near the old shut-off valve, was a shiny brass screw. Just sitting there. Like, y’ know. Screws do.

“Oh. My. God. I thought,” having only moved six feet from the bed where this idea was hatched the previous night, wondering wherever I might find such a thing. “The Universe loves this idea so much, it is shitting its own britches!”

I changed into a preliminary dog walking dress, 50% pajamas, 50% street clothes, and I dropped the screw into my pocket. Then, slipping out in the cold, I walked Murphy for about twenty minutes, letting him explore the strange snowy neighborhood. I felt a little dreamy, not in the sexy way, but in the blurry way. “Are you seriously doing this? What the hell are you thinking?” a vague voice from far away asked me, and I patted the screw in my pocket to check that it was really there. But I felt like that questioning voice was a “put on” thing. Like me trying to have a Jiminy Cricket character on my shoulder because I thought there should be one, even though I felt fine. Not just fine; justified.

Murphy and I got back to our rental. I had a dog turd in hand and a screw in my pocket. Suffice it to say, lot’s of options. I opened the door and let Murphy in, but lingered outside for just a minute more. I checked for cameras. I looked for lights in the rooms of our neighbors, who were clearly still sleeping off last night. Then I did the deed. I could have left the screw standing upright on the concrete behind the back tire, but I didn’t. She might have backed up slowly, just knocking it over to the side as they left. I was angrier than that. I took the time to push the point of the screw into the tread, and wedge a side of the flat end into the concrete. Then I tossed the dog shit in the trash bin as I walked inside.

Like a fucking snake who takes no shit.

I won’t pretend that I feel profoundly guilty about it. Or even mildly guilty. I am not. I had several chances to remove that screw that morning as we were packing up, and then again as we left. As we drove away, I felt no compunction. No second or third thought. I literally screwed that lady and it felt great, like revenge on the entire 2020 and the let down of the promise of 2021. “This is what ‘taking no shit’ feels like!” I thought.

And then I sat in a car for eight and a half hours. I still didn’t have second thoughts or a moment of regret. I smiled each time I thought about that brassy little screw, waiting to ruin that woman’s day with no hope of teaching a lesson or sending a message or doing any greater good whatsoever. It was a point without a point.

But it did make me think. How does one refuse to take shit without doing harm? Is it even possible? Without going into details about the struggles between me and Matt’s ex, no matter how carefully I push back, (thinking that I’m just defending myself and “taking no shit”) I do harm. I do harm to the relationship, and the inevitable reaction brings harm on myself. I can only assume I am harming her also, even though that is not my intention. I spend so much time trying to draft these messages to make them set boundaries without insult, but I can’t predict the reaction and it seems backlash is inevitable.

On that long drive, I reflected also on 2020, and all the shit that it dished out. I don’t know how I will remember the pandemic year, but I hang on to the helplessness that I felt. At first, the hoarding was so disheartening, but I managed to keep my family in stock. Then, I wanted to help the people who hadn’t managed. I joined a neighborhood group to try to get essentials to the elderly or strapped who weren’t able to find toilet paper or isopropyl alcohol and other necessities. No one called. I tried to find other ways to contribute. I didn’t know what to do, but I looked for opportunities, and ended up as a subject in the clinical trials for Pfizer, and then a registered poll worker.

This sounds like virtue signaling but that isn’t what I mean (which is obviously what any virtue signaler would say). I had a box of toilet paper in my garage for all of the spring that none of my neighbors needed. Someone in my city needed it, I knew that. But I didn’t know who and finding them proved hard and I stopped trying. I want to help but there is a limit to what I will to do try. I don’t know how.

That brings me back to this pin. The “take no shit, do no harm” motto I spoke about. That clearly doesn’t work at all. It is a nice idea. It sounds so nice. Something that could elevate one above the fray, into a position of purity and faultlessness. That isn’t the world I live in. Even if it was, it isn’t a position that is meaningful, that might effect change. That isn’t who I want to be. I want to find opportunities, not just to be harmless, but to do good. As bad as 2020 was, I found some of those opportunities. Things that I could tell my great nieces and great nephews. With a wobbling voice, I might talk about the vaccine trials, or about wearing a mask while registering first time voters to participate in the 2020 election. And then I might say, with grandmotherly wisdom. “Some’a those cunts didn’t know their ass from a gov’ment issued ID!”

As for my new pin, I will hang on to it. The message is completely impractical, but who doesn’t like to imagine a quixotic future of easy coexistence? Also, it looks kinda baddass. Meanwhile, my words for 2021, I have decided, will be, “take some inevitable shit, and look for opportunities to do some good.”

It wasn’t an intentional goal but it guided me well last year. In that way, it was a better year than I realized at the time. That said, may we never see another like it.

P.S. To the lady I ‘screwed,’ I can’t apologize in earnest, because I listened to you spew your rants about everyone you knew for hours and you seemed awful. Thank you, however, for being so awful and allowing me to be awful with a sense of justice, because, if it wasn’t clear before, you are a dick and being a dick to you felt really good.

Happy New Year! (in dog shit).

That’s worse, right? The dog shit? I feel like you (and not a mechanic) would have to deal with that, and you wouldn’t like it. Therefore, making it worse? But whatever. You suck. And I may always backslide. Just like Mrs. Hedgehog.

Breaking Tradition

I love Christmas. I love Christmas so freaking much. It surprises people because I am loudly atheist and I guess that seems like a big disconnect. I don’t notice because I always forget that Christmas is about Jesus. I get excited about finding memorable gifts and knitting scarves and baking pies. I had to make a rule that I couldn’t start Christmas shopping until after Labor Day (a rule I have frequently broken in the past) but to make up for it I am allowed to MAKE gifts all year round. (Not pies, obviously.)

The sad this is that I love Christmas so much I usually ruin it. I realized some time ago that I have this habit of trying to recreate the perfect Christmas, which doesn’t exist. Or rather, in my mind, is actually a combination of memories from several Christmases from my 43 years with all the bad parts snipped out. Nothing could ever live up to my expectations. My family would come and I would be waiting for the magic to start, but their excitement didn’t match mine. Which made me anxious. They aren’t having fun! I’m doing it wrong! So then I’d open up some wine to try to “fix” it. After an hour or so I’d be drunk and go to bed, and then next morning I would realize I had ruined it yet again.

This year, my 43rd Christmas, was supposed to be one of the *good* Christmases. Those are the ones where my sister and her husband and their two children come out from Seattle and we have a big Christmas with our entire family all together in one house. But this is not going to be one of the *good* Christmases. This is going to be a COVID Christmas (hopefully it will be “The” COVID Christmas), and no one is going to gather, much less travel from Washington. I’m feeling cheated and sad about the whole thing. But maybe it is a good thing? I can’t ruin anyone’s Christmas this year but my own. And Matt’s. Sorry, Matt!

I can’t say I’ve been dreading this weekend. I’ve just been pretending it’s not coming up. And then, when I couldn’t do that anymore, I’ve been pretending it isn’t a big deal. I’ve been feeling this pull to do the complete opposite of ruining Christmas with my insane enthusiasm. I’ve been wanting to ruin it in a new way, by skipping Christmas altogether and stay in bed with a book. Like a readathon in grade school! Those were the only times I felt safe as a bullied kid in public elementary school: double-insulated by hiding inside a book, under a metal legged desk. I grew up in the 80s when they still did they occasional “hide under your desk, it might save you from having your cells liquified by an atomic weapon!” drill. I didn’t worry about that so much. That was just a faint possibility. Other children were my Cold War, and they showed up every goddamned day.

I was thinking about this great episode of This American Life from many years ago, where they tackle the issue of the repetitive side of the holidays, where people do the same twelve things every year because they are traditions and because it brings up those memories of years past. It’s a fraught enterprise, I have decided. It’s comfortable, sure. Like settling in to your own well worn butt grove in your favorite chair. But it is also a high pressure delusion. You HAVE to get it just right, or you BLEW IT! And if you DO get it just right, you will never truly be sure which Christmas you are remembering when looking back on it, because you went to the same performance of The Nutcracker for 35 years in row.

With that in mind, this year, I’m blowing off the traditions and trying to do some new things. We can’t do the traditions, anyway, so why not? Matt and I sat down and planned the Christmas Eve and Christmas morning menus, choosing new recipes we have never made before. We drove to the Salt Flats, west of Salt Lake City, to see “the great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, which cannot be repeated for another 60 years, so no traditions there!

The hope is that it will help me to miss everyone less, because I’m not eating our family’s traditional Christmas oyster stew and looking around my table at all the people who aren’t there. Which, frankly, is a bonus because I don’t like oysters. I usually just eat the potatoes and the bacon and fling the little oyster bits into potted plants or dog’s mouths when no one is looking.

Besides going to see “The Christmas Star,” as people are calling it (I suppose because it has a more romantic ring than “The Planetary Alignment Which Happened to Occur on Earth’s Winter Solstice”), I also made my first Yule log. I’ve been doing some research on Pagan traditions and I read that the old custom was to throw a large log on the fire to celebrate the return of the longer days and the sunshine. In the 19th century, it became a cake that looks like a log. I’ve seen pictures before but it always looked too difficult and time consuming. This year, I decided to make one to celebrate solstice, and because what the hell else am I going to do?

It was easier than I thought it would be. There is this great recipe online that has videos showing the rolling part, which was great, because I couldn’t picture it at all. (Don’t skimp on the powdered sugar on that step! It will save you and your dishtowel some stress!) More than that, it was fun! Something completely new. And, if I do say so myself, it was damn yummy.

This is my strategy for the next week. Don’t try to make it perfect. Don’t try to make it terrible in revenge for the fact that it won’t be perfect. Just let it be what it is and find some adventure as a distraction from the fact that I won’t get to see my sisters or hug their kids.

Happy holidays, everyone. I hope they are either perfectly mediocre or memorable in a good way.

R

The Other First Thanksgiving

The year 1863 was a rough one in the United States. On January 1st, the new year began with Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, stating, “I never in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.” Let’s not give him too much credit though; this was a calculated military decision, not a humanitarian one. The civil war was in its third year and far from over. As such the proclamation was not enforceable in the rebellious South. Lincoln hoped that emancipation would inspire a mass revolt and exodus of Southern slaves to the North, bulking up the Union army and sapping the labor force of the South.

Unsurprisingly, the proclamation received mixed responses. Abolitionists, who had been fighting slavery in the U.S. since before the American Revolution, celebrated the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the progress it represented. White supremacists in the North and the South were outraged, of course. It was fresh meat for the already bitterly divided country to claim and combat over.*

In March, the Civil War Conscription Act was issued, making military service mandatory for all men between the ages of 20 and 45. If you could find a substitute or pay a fee of $300 you could be excused from this “draft,” which was clearly unfair to the poor. The South, also hurting for recruits, took a similar action. This caused a backlash for both military campaigns, and large riots broke out in New York City.

1863 would see many significant Civil War battles. The Battle of Chancellorsville and The Vicksburg Campaign both commenced in May. Then, on the first day of July, The Battle of Gettysburg began. The Union prevailed after three days of fighting. They stopped Lee’s advance into Northern territory and the battle would prove to be a turning point in the war (still two years away from its end), but victory came at a terrible price. Collectively, there were 23 thousand casualties, and seven thousand Americans died on the battlefield. (For comparison, note that a total of 6,800 died in the entire Revolutionary War.)

In short, 1863 was a shit year. They didn’t have dumpster fires back then, so if they had sold jokey holiday ornaments, it would have been an outhouse on fire with dead bodies all around it and a bright shiny “1863” stamped on it.

Then, in September, a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale (you’ve never heard of her, but she wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) wrote Abraham Lincoln a letter, asking that Thanksgiving be “made a National and fixed Union Festival.”

We all remember learning about the story of the “First Thanksgiving,” which is more or less apocryphal. There was a gathering in Plymouth Massachusetts in 1621 where Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe shared a feast. Other feasts of thanksgiving happened earlier than 1621 in several other states.

In October of 1789, President George Washington commemorated these stories by creating a holiday, giving “the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving.” It wasn’t formalized, however. For the next 74 years, Thanksgiving was a sporadic holiday, with the celebratory date determined state by state.

In her letter, Hale asked that President Lincoln write a proclamation appointing the last Thursday in November as a national holiday, “thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.” Hale, who was the editor of Lady’s Book (sometimes called Godey’s Magazine), had been championing this idea for fifteen years. Abraham Lincoln was not the first president she petitioned, but she would not be disappointed this time.

I don’t know what Abraham Lincoln said exactly, but I watch a lot of Drunk History, so I imagine it was something like, “we should like totally do this [belch]. I’m going to make this a thing.”

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation (which was written by Secretary of State, William Seward) reads:

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

And so, November 26th, 1863 became the other first Thanksgiving. The nation was in morning and searching for its soul. More than 600 thousand soldiers would die in the war by its end in 1865. Lincoln lost his own young son to illness just a year before, in 1862. There is a way in which calling for a festival of gratitude seems like an insane act in this year. At the same time, it seems like the sanest thing Lincoln could have done to begin the healing was to ask everyone to come together around the one thing we can all agree on: food.

Obviously, I’m making a little parallel here. I don’t think you can compare the tragedies of 1863 to 2020, though the death and suffering of both years have left a mourning nation. I want to think they will both be remembered as periods that transformed us for the better. I’ve heard some people in my group of friends say they were forgoing Thanksgiving this year, partly because of the pandemic, but also because of the racism associated with the story and with the colonists and Native Americans in general. That’s fine; everyone must find their own path. But when I think about Thanksgiving I think about 1863 and all those years where the creation of “a more perfect union” was an excruciating labor of love and not just a theoretical exercise. I think of a nation torn in half, digging deep to find gratitude.

I know we weren’t able to gather with our loved ones last week, and that was really hard. Still, I hope you gave thanks. I hope you called your people. I hope you sent a text to that friend that you think of often but rarely speak to. I hope you broke bread with someone you love, and I hope you ate your feelings until it hurt. That’s what I did, anyway.

*Footnote: at four o’clock this morning I sat up in bed in horror, realizing that my inclusion of the Emancipation Proclamation in my list of big events in 1863 implies I think it was a bad thing, when that isn’t what I meant! I’m including it only because it was divisive. Obviously, it was a good thing, and a huge undertaking. (I know this because I saw Lincoln with Daniel Day Lewis. Great movie!) True emancipation wouldn’t come until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, but we celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation for good reason.

Okay. I can go back to bed now.

Shrinkage?

This is what I get for ordering dog treats online. I’ve known a few guys who measure six inches this way… but seriously. Are we really worried about the pig’s feelings at this point?

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