Hello friends. I’ve been a bit distracted and I took an unintentional break from blogging. I’m getting back in the saddle; I promise.
Meanwhile, I wrote a thing and someone published it! Yay for me! You can read it here if you are so inclined.
Thoughts on Life and Lemons by Rachel
Hello friends. I’ve been a bit distracted and I took an unintentional break from blogging. I’m getting back in the saddle; I promise.
Meanwhile, I wrote a thing and someone published it! Yay for me! You can read it here if you are so inclined.
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.
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’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.”
The last couple of weeks went to hell in an old frayed tote bag from a long forgotten telethon for PBS. Last week, especially, was completely unproductive. There has been a lot of focus on the fires in the West, and the stories are terrible and horrifying. I just wonder if it were a slower news week, maybe the fact that there was a small hurricane in Utah might have received SOME attention. But no. Utah is the U.S.’s weird cousin state that everyone pretends not to know at school (or anywhere in public outside of Thanksgiving, for that matter… but even then you have to sneak into the dining room and rearrange the seating to ensure you are at least three seats away because he always smells just a bit of cat food. Why do you smell like cat food? You know it isn’t laundry detergent, for the love of God!).
It happened, though! I didn’t have power for four days. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t dick around. I couldn’t even make pottery because the wheels at my studio are electric! I’m just a piker, in that department, however. I have a friend who was out of power for seven days! More than 170,000 homes lost power due to the 100 mile per hour winds that knocked down trees all over Salt Lake and surrounding towns and suburbs.
As a public service, I’m going to share some photos of the tree carnage, because everyone needs to see this. Point being, climate change is real and not a problem for the future. It’s here, people! The wettest towns in Oregon are on fire, it now snows in the Mountain West in September, and landlocked Utah gets temperate hurricanes.
Personally, I still sleep well at night because I never had children. Don’t get me wrong; I worry about my step son’s future day and night. But I didn’t decide to drag him into this world and so his ultimate suffering doesn’t feel like my fault.
I don’t have an agenda here, but here is my call to action. Believe the climate is changing and we are on our way to becoming the next dinosaurs. If you can make a change, make it. Do whatever you can. This is not a problem for the future of humanity to deal with. It’s here; it’s us. Time to get to work.
At The Desert Pearl Hotel in Springdale, Utah
Ethan (age 5): The sink in our room is so short! I had to bend over to use it!!!
Me: What sink? What are you talking about?
Ethan: The one in the bathroom.
Me: Right next to the toilet?
Me: That is not a sink. It’s a bidet.
Ethan: What’s that?
Matt: It’s European.
Me: Only it’s for when you’re-a-poopin’.
Matt: It’s a sink for your bum.
(Photo: Zion National Park – Mt. Carmel Highway Scenic Drive)
Heavy Heavy Hangover
“What do you want for your birthday?” a friend asked.
“Oh, I don’t deserve a present. Just give me a lump of coal in a brown paper sack. That will make it easier for you to hit me in the head with it.”
My friend gave me a blank stare which he accented with thoughtful blinking. Finally he asked, “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You know. That game you play when you’re a kid? ‘Heavy heavy hangover… thy poor head…’?”
More blank staring and thoughtful blinking.
So I explained the game. The birthday boy or girl would have to sit in a chair and everyone who brought a gift to the party would, one by one, go stand behind the child and say the whole rhyme. Which went, “Heavy heavy hangover, thy poor head. What would you wish with a BUMP on your head?” And when you say “bump,” you would wallop the birthday kid over the head with your gift. And you could smash them as hard as you want and they couldn’t get mad. And then, as you would hand them the gift to unwrap, they would wish for something specifically for you. Usually it was for something completely outlandish and impossible. Like a pony, or a trip to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
“That’s… completely… odd,” said my friend as diplomatically as possible.
“You really didn’t play that game growing up?” I asked. “Seriously? I always assumed that everyone played that at birthday parties.”
I asked about twenty people over the next couple of days if they had ever heard of this game, and no one had. I called my parents to ask them where it came from, but it turns out that neither of them ever played it as kids. In fact, they hadn’t heard of it until my sisters and I learned it from the neighbors.
I brought it up again at my birthday party. “Have any of you ever heard of ‘Heavy Heavy Hangover?’”
This time, my friend Gina (who was also raised in Utah) immediately started chanting the rhyme in a funny put-on kid voice.
“Yes!” I said. “Finally! I thought I was going insane!”
“Mormons are so weird,” someone else said, after we explained the game to the room.
“That’s just it!” I said. “It can’t be a Mormon thing; it has the word ‘hangover’ in it! Right?”
“Maybe that’s what Mormons think hangovers are,” Gina offered.
“Maybe…” I wondered.
I Googled it but didn’t solve the mystery. I found some references and it definitely seems to be Utah and even Mormon centric. But I didn’t find an origin story.
Then, sometime later, I was re-reading The Great Brain, a children’s book by Utah writer, John D. Fitzgerald and he referenced the game (and he didn’t explain it, so apparently he thought it was ‘a thing’ too), proving they were playing it in Utah as early as the 1910s. Wherever it came from, it’s probably a good thing it never caught on in any global sense. Sure, it was fun for us to brain each other when we were kids. But kids can handle that sort of thing because – as everyone knows – children are made of galvanized rubber and polyurethane. If everyone carried a connection with birthday gifts and head injuries into adulthood, as I have done, this world would be a much scarier place. Especially when you consider that more than one of my lovely friends bought me wine for my birthday. One well placed thwack with that and I’d be permanently lobotomized. I’d wander around for the rest of my life drooling on people while wishing them ponies.
And Mormons think that alcohol is bad for you if you drink it. Can you imagine?
The first time I went to the Pride Festival in Salt Lake City back in the 90s, it was a fairly small affair. Don’t get me wrong; it was a good sized party and plenty of people came, but not so many that you wouldn’t bump into your friends without making a big deal over it. Which was good because I didn’t have a cell phone back then. There was a free speech corner for the protesters, and there were a decent number of those. And there were booths but it didn’t have a lot of art or stuff for sale. I would say it was fun with freaky elements, but ultimately low key.
Am I telling you this to say that I liked gay people before it was cool to like gay people? Yes. And also to point out it was once possible to meet up with friends and do stuff without cell phones. But mostly I have it on my mind because I was trying to conjure that memory today while at the Pride parade and festival. I heard on NPR on Friday that thirty thousand people were expected to attend.
Thirty. Thousand. People. In Salt Lake City. UTAH!
If I had been in a coma since the 90s and awoke today to be told by my friends how far we have come on LGBTQ rights, I would have said, “There’s a ‘Q’ now? What’s that stand for?” Then, when I was fully up to speed I would have said, “Holy Shit! Is it 2048?”
And then my friends would say, “No, it’s only 2016! And your hair is still brown!”
Then I would have said, “Dudes! That is The Bomb! Now get me outta this bed, Beeotch, so we can do the Macarena!!! People still do that, right?”
I haven’t been in a coma but I was still stunned to go and see the joy and the community acceptance that is at the center of the SLC Pride celebration now. So many people came to hang out and enjoy the festival. I started to write something about “came to support…” But it didn’t really feel like that to me, today. It just felt like people having fun.
There were no protesters (that I saw). I didn’t hear any pro or con arguments of any sort. People danced and ate and wandered around. It was the party of the year and everyone was invited. And it was amazing.
The bit that really got me were the grey haired folks marching in the parade with Mormons Building Bridges, a group of Latter Day Saints that supports the LGBTQ community. There were multiple people in wheelchairs and one that was holding a sign proclaiming her love and support for her grandson. If someone would have told me about that after I came out of my imaginary coma I would have gone right back under.
When the lady in the wheelchair went by I teared up a little bit; I really did. But then I told myself to snap out of it because in trying to wipe the tears away I got sunscreen in my eyes and that hurt really bad.
We live in a truly remarkable time. We get to live our lives as authentically as we dare to. We aren’t required to live the lives that others planned for us in order to make them feel comfortable. It still isn’t easy, but so many obstacles have been cleared for us and for those who come after.
If you’ve never been to a Pride Festival and have one coming up in your area, go. Celebrate. Be your authentic self. You might not encounter someone you can make uncomfortable, but you may make an old cynic like me cry.
Traveling south from Salt Lake City on Interstate 15, you will eventually pass a city called Fillmore, a tiny town that was the original capital of the Utah territory. Then, about fifty miles south of that, you will pass the city of Beaver. Growing up, I often heard this part of the state referred to as “the Fillmore/Beaver area.” Either because Utahn’s are really sheltered, or because we like to make our teenagers giggle.
I wonder which of those two types of Utahns made this sign. I’m hoping the latter.