money well spent

My son Nick, a first grader, looked over my shoulder as I thumbed through Facebook on a recent snow day. He saw a picture of a classmate standing bundled in the snow. He knew her name, so I asked him about her. I’ll call her Jane.

I like to ask my kids about their classmates. I like to nose around in their relationships at school, to get a feel for how they’re interacting with their peers and  what sorts of issues and non-issues are floating around. I’m a nosy mom.

“Do you like Jane?”

A smile hit Nick’s face like sunshine as he answered promptly and cheerfully. “Yeah!”

“Do you play together sometimes?”

“Kind of.”

“Do you ever play with her on the playground?”

“Kind of… she has a helper.”

I know Jane’s a child with a disability or two, but I don’t really know how her abilities and behaviors are affected.

“Do you ever talk with her?”

Nick unexpectedly made a sad face. He shook his head no, and he wouldn’t answer me aloud.

“What’s wrong, Nick?”

He shrugged.

“Is she non-verbal?”

He still just looked at me.

“Does Jane talk?”

With that question, it seemed he decided I was going to get it, so he finally answered. “Not really. She makes some noises and does this sometimes.” He flapped his hands a little.

“Does that bother you?”

“Of course not!”

He looked at me like I was daft to ask.

“Do you like having her in your class?”

“Yeah,” he answered without hesitation, and then he explained to me a bit about how Jane has a helper with her in class so she can do things, and sometimes she does hand-over-hand writing, just like he had to do through much of kindergarten. He also pointedly informed me, in a sort of remonstration, that Jane is not the only child who needs extra help in the classroom. He mentioned a couple kids with behavior issues, chattered about special ways teachers and aides work with them, and didactically made sure I wasn’t singling Jane out as being especially challenged.

* * * * *

There was a time not so long ago that I would have said I was proud of Nick for his attitude toward Jane, but I’ve come to realize that pride is a patronizing, almost offensive, attitude in this context. Why should I be proud of my child for looking at a human being with a disability and seeing… a human being?

We sat quietly for a moment, and I decided to take it up a notch.

“Nick, do you know that there was a time not so long ago that Jane probably wouldn’t have been allowed to be in the same class as you?”

His mouth fell open in an exaggerated expression of shock, and he yelled in my face, “WHY?”

I winced. Nick has a decibel disability. He was apparently born without volume control.

“Because she’s different. Grown ups would have said she doesn’t belong in the same class as kids like you.”

“WHAAAT?”

“People with disabilities would have been put in separate classrooms, or even in totally separate schools. In some schools they wouldn’t have even been allowed to come in the same school doors as kids like you, so you wouldn’t have even known they were there.”

Nick was disgusted. He couldn’t believe a world like that could exist.

“People would have said that if someone needs a helper in the classroom, she shouldn’t be there.”

“That’s so wrong!”

“Do you think your class would be better without Jane there?”

“NO!!”

By now my daughter Jesse, a fifth grader, had joined our conversation. Jesse copes with an anxiety disorder and OCD and Tourette’s. Jesse is sometimes beset by coprolalia, one of the most offensive manifestations of Tourette’s.  Jesse has a long history of therapy and treatment; she takes meds for the anxiety and tics; and she has an Individual Education Plan at school that ensures she gets much-needed special ed support and accommodations. As a result, she’s doing really well, and most days you wouldn’t know she’s anything but neurotypical.

I went in for the kill.

“There was a time when kids like Jesse wouldn’t have been allowed to be in a regular classroom.”

The kids were silent and shocked. It seemed like it was a lot to take in.

I gave it a name. “But some of our schools have changed a lot. We call it inclusion. An inclusive classroom, where all different kinds of kids can learn and play together. Do you like having inclusive classrooms?”

You know what the answer was, my dear reader.

* * * * *

Don’t think for a minute that I’m suggesting my incredible parenting and saintly values are turning my kids into inclusion champions in the schoolyard. I’m not even remotely that good. Frankly, I didn’t even have any idea what the concept of “inclusion” meant when Jesse started tormenting her teachers in preschool. I spent most of those early years apologizing and ducking my head in shame. And yet here was my young son now, instinctively embracing the heart of what inclusion is all about.

I didn’t teach him that. Rather, inclusion at school has created an environment where my children don’t really comprehend its absence. Inclusion at school has taught me that my own children are welcome, whatever challenges they may face in the years to come; and thus school inclusion has taught me to believe my own disabled child deserves to be included. Inclusion has moved me from a place of patronizing compassion and sympathy for others, and guilty shame for myself, to a place of co-equal acceptance and mutual empathy. Inclusion has taught my children and me that different is same, and same is different.

Equal.

Inclusion doesn’t happen because one day people wake up and say, “hey, let’s include everyone, no matter what their abilities and needs are! Yay!! Inclusion!!”

Successful inclusion takes effort and commitment and advocacy and good laws, of course; and it takes creative, educated thinking to identify and develop accommodations, modifications, and therapeutic tools. But also in the crassest sense it takes money, which most families raising children with disabilities don’t have enough of. We rely on private health insurance to cover the costs of treating our children’s unique disabilities and providing interventions and therapies to improve the quality of their lives; and more of us have been able to do that now, thanks to the ACA. When that’s not enough, we turn to public resources like Medicaid. We look for help in our public school systems too, through special education programs and occupational therapists and speech therapists and school counselors and whatever else we can get our hands on. Those resources are funded through school budgets but also in part through Medicaid.

Is it taxpayer money well-spent? Of course it is (even leaving aside social justice issues and basic human decency), and not just for the individuals who rely directly on these resources. Anyone who thinks Jane is the only one benefiting from inclusion — including the therapies and modifications and aides that make it possible — is living in a narrow, dark tube. Jane’s inclusion benefits all the children and families around her just as much as it benefits her, short term and long term. 

Nick isn’t having a better experience at school because he’s learning to “tolerate” Jane. He’s having a better experience because Jane, his peer, is a unique, fully formed human being in his classroom. He’s learning broader skill sets in human interaction, thanks to diversity. How will he treat kids who are mean or kind? Kids who are hostile or bullied? Kids who are verbal and non-verbal? Kids who learn quick and learn slow? Kids who can sit still and can’t? Kids from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds? Kids who have visible disabilities and invisible disabilities? The last is just one more in a long list of questions we ought to be confronting as we grow up.

Someday, as an adult, Nick will enter the workforce. He may have a boss, an employee, a co-worker, or a client with a disability. How will he handle it? Before inclusion, he likely would have been facing that question for the first time as an adult, with a jarful of ignorance, bias, and misinformation.  With school inclusion, right from his earliest memories, Nick will have experiences that inform his thinking and decision-making, that will help him make intuitively respectful, wise choices in how he engages with people.

I can’t readily put a price tag on that. But I know the number would be high, really high.

* * * * *

It’s easy to wring hands about the sometimes astronomical dollar costs of providing therapies and services for people with disabilities, at taxpayer expense. I haven’t dug too deeply into the justifications for moving to Medicaid per capita or block grants, but I suspect that this is a big part of the problem: some people just don’t think it’s right to put too much tax money into one person. They’d like to cap it.

For my part, I find it easier to wring my taxpayer hands about the costs of not providing needed services. There are plenty of resources out there for you to find, if you want to, about how much more it costs on the fiscal front for our governments not to include, empower, and enable people with disabilities. And no one can really quantify the moral cost to a society of having people with disabilities living in dehumanizing institutions or abandoned to the streets, unable to find employment, unable to live independent and healthy lives because we’ve failed to provide them basic supporting resources. I’m with Nick in feeling a sense of disgust that this is even up for debate.

So I’m trying not to be swallowed by despair, as we watch American leaders start to tear down Medicaid and the ACA, which have been instrumental in supporting people with disabilities as they strive to live fully enabled, human lives.  I’m trying to stay focused on the day-to-day, right here in my tiny world in Wisconsin. I’m thankful that I live in a place where regular kids like Jane and Nick can be in a regular school together. If Jane requires a little or even a lot more assistance to make that possible, so be it. Someday it might be Nick who needs an extra hand. Allocating money to need doesn’t mean Jane is unfairly getting too much.

Allocating money to need makes equal inclusion possible, and therefore it is exactly what fairness looks like. It makes Jane and Nick equal children in our society, just as they are equal humans in our species. And I’ll always take equal over a tax break.

First grade is for the perfect birds 

 

Let me just say this up front, before I move on to complaining: I pink-puffy-heart the public schools my kids attend. Our school district is incredibly diverse for Wisconsin, both economically and racially. Our teachers are mostly wonderful, and our experience with special ed has been better than it could have been. (This is a rousing endorsement, coming from me today.)

Teachers in Wisconsin’s public schools don’t feel especially loved these days by their state government, whose Republican leaders tend to create the impression they think PS teachers are whiny spoiled brats and lazy overpaid bums working in schools that are overwhelmingly failing because of a lack of competition from private schools, which problem can magically be fixed by vouchers.

I’m not buying it. I know our PS teachers are using their own money to make up for gaps in school budgets for much-needed supplies in their classrooms. I know they work overtime without compensation, because I see the odd hours at which they send out emails to parents. On weekends. I know how engaged they are with the curriculum. I know how they have loved my kids. They are not whiny babies, and they are not overpaid, and they are decidedly not spoiled.

I also know that public schools don’t suck and aren’t failing. Maybe some are, but in general public schools are doing great and are seriously under appreciated. A thriving public school system is, in many ways, the beating heart of a successful democracy, a great institution that helps create a well-informed, literate voting population. Hypothetically.

Anyway, I’m a supporter of our PS teachers, period.

So understand that my complaints here are about early education models, not about my school system or public schools or my kids’ teachers. These are hard times for PS teachers. I don’t want to pile on.

(Except now I will.)

* * * *

I’ve been hearing on and off all year from Nick about a sliding-scale behavior chart they use in first grade. Nick — an otherwise cheerful and well-adjusted young laddie — was very apprehensive about it at first. He told me last fall that there was a big chart in the classroom with every student’s name on it. Next to each name was a sliding marker on a color scale. If you screwed up, your marker slid down the scale to a bad color. If you didn’t screw up, you stayed at the top on a good color.

I was a little shocked, skeptical even. It sounds a lot like public shaming, like a new iteration of the dunce-cap model. I thought we don’t public-shame our kids anymore.

I asked about a bit and learned the entire first grade team uses this system. I intended to visit the classroom and check it out, and inquire and wheedle about it, but I became complacent quickly. Why? Because Nick is a compliant, hardworking, easy-going kid who handles himself really well at school. After years of Jesse’s struggles, it’s easy for me to be lazy about Nick, whose needs are far less immediate and intense and obvious.

But then last week this came home.

It made me really, really grumpy.

* * * * *

I generally hate color-coded rating scales. Remember when the Homeland Security color chart came out after 9/11?

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I made so much fun of that, living in Washington, D.C. where we felt unsafe every day for a long time after 9/11. There was something stupid about the color-coded system. The different categories felt arbitrary, filling me with meaningless rhetorical questions that distracted me from my job. What is, after all, the difference between a “high risk” and a “significant risk”? And why in that order? Doesn’t “significant” belong above “high”? Why do three of the five categories include the same word in the header and description, but “guarded” goes with “general” and “elevated” goes with “significant”? Why even have the category “guarded” (aka general)? Isn’t there always a general risk of terrorist attacks?

Head scratchers.

I felt the same way when I saw Nick’s behavior chart and the colors.

IMG_3290.jpg

I couldn’t stop the stupid questions.

Why is there any category higher than “ready to learn”? Doesn’t that seem like, I don’t know… the pinnacle of what we’re looking for in school? What more do you want from these little 6- and 7-year-olds, most of whom are still only barely capable of wiping their own butts after pooping?

What makes a choice good versus a great one? What’s outstanding? Why isn’t outstanding about choices too? Is it meant for the teacher’s pets, like some categorical recognition that you are generally an amazing person regardless of the choices you make?

Why is there a tattle category? Or maybe it’s better to think of it as the nuclear option category, the grown up equivalent of “I’M TELL YOUR MOMMY!” Why isn’t the tattle built into the top of the scale too? Don’t I deserve to be contacted if my kid is “outstanding”? (which, you will note, Nick apparently is, la la la la.)

What silly person picked the colors? Why is PINK outstanding and RED super bad? Pink, after all, is simply white-diluted bled-out red. Is there some secret, insidious, gendered message contained in that choice? I noticed that the color progression follows the rainbow, except one color is missing. Why replace indigo-in-the-middle with pink-on-top?   Every modern rainbow has seven colors, one of which is indigo. Look:

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People really need to commit to a thing and do it right. If you’re going rainbow, just GO FULL RAINBOW. Otherwise, you’re just confusing the kids.

* * * * *

After I failed to get over the color coding, my eyes fell to the “Behavior Codes.” I don’t understand. They’re not codes. They’re a top-eleven (why? why?) list of all the (apparently) worst things kids can do at school.

I scanned the list and finally understood something I’ve been struggling with all year.  When I pick up the kids from school, I like to ask questions like, “Tell me something good you did at school today.” I’ve worried because Nick either can’t or won’t answer that question. He typically shrugs, makes “I have no idea” eyebrows, and runs off to pretend sticks are alien laser-shooting weapons. But he’s always ready to tell me about the tiny ways he messed up.

And now I get it. If I asked Nick what he did wrong, he’d have a ready answer. The school has provided him a handy list of fails by which to measure his days.

More questions stacked up. Nick has told me you can slide up and down the color chart through the day. It’s constant surveillance. But how do you go up or down?  How do the behavior codes translate to the color chart? Is there a counting and adding and subtracting system? Do some fails move you more on the scale than others? Is  it arbitrary and secret, so the kids have no real idea how their behaviors will affect their color? What if you were out of your seat for a good reason, like you were about to vomit and you ran out of the room? What if you save a life by doing CPR? Does that make up for a whole mountain of bad and put you on perma-pink? What if you “misbehaved” (don’t really know what that means without more information, if you have social cuing issues like me) because you have a mental health challenge? Does it still count? Do you get sent down the color scale, or do you get a modification? Does that need to be in an IEP? Does a parent need to formally request a 504 accommodation?

I stared at the chart and behavior codes and tried to slow my racing thoughts, and then a bit of an ache touched my heart. Imagine what this sort of plan does to a kid with severe anxiety, or the extreme-moral-self-judging down side of OCD, or ADHD, or a variety of behavior challenges or home situations that make this stuff hard. Imagine a kid who’s looking for direction on how to behave, not how not to behave. She won’t find it on this list.

I thought of my Jesse in first grade. I think they had a similar system in place, but I was too exhausted from other issues to pay any attention.  Jesse would have been paralyzed in the face of this sort of behavior chart, until she would have exploded in raging fits. Which is pretty much what she did. It would have been an exquisite torture. She would have wandered over to that chart every day and volunteered herself right down to red, in a desperate attempt to be free of the overwhelming, unachievable task of staying good. She would have obsessed on all the ways she could screw the pooch, those thoughts filling her head thunderously until all her self-control was drowned in the noise and she tic’ed her way down the bloody scale. Being on red would have satisfied her, allowing her to discard the dissonance of hating herself while seeing evidence that someone else didn’t think she sucked completely.

I sat back and shook my head. How do we end up here as adults? How do we convince ourselves that these are good ideas? I’m not judging, mind you. I’m the fool who made a behavior chart for Jesse, just last year, that started with “do what you’re told, when you’re told to do it.”

It would be so easy to fix the negativity embraced by this first grade chart. You just flip it to the positive, and see where it takes you.

I stayed in my seat.
I waited my turn to talk.
I followed directions.
I was respectful.
I behaved well.
I helped a friend.
I was kind.
I was fair.

And so on. Kids would have behaviors to shoot for, instead of behaviors to avoid. They might become more aware of all the good things they do, rather than the bad. I think it’s easier to strive than to avoid, even if striving is hard. I think most of us would prefer to climb a steep mountain than to walk through a minefield. Why would we ask anything else of our children?

I have no doubt that most of our elementary school’s teachers actually focus on positives in the classroom (or else how would you ever make it back up the blessed sliding scale?). I know Nick’s teacher seems to be flexible and realistic about what kids can accomplish at this age. I wish the first grade team could just put that attitude on the chart to send home.

* * * * *

The kicker on this list, the thing that made me tell Nick I don’t care what color shows up on it, ever, was the note to the parents.

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Parents are only invited to talk about the chart with their kids in cases of failure.

I consider that limited exhortation a full-on system failure.

Parents should be invited to talk about the chart with their kids no matter what. Why in the world would we only focus on what’s negative? If your kid’s coming home PINK every day, doesn’t she deserve a hefty back-pat? I’m not talking about false praise or puffery. I’m talking about reinforcing behaviors we value.

What if we replaced that parental directive with something like this:

Please talk with your child about what color day he had. Ask him what he did right, and what mistakes he made. Talk with him about how positive  behaviors make school more fun and help him learn better.

* * * * *

Jesse came out of school today telling me about some pretty gnarly stuff she did. Definitely in the red zone for a fifth grader. I told her it was unacceptable, and I was a bit of a wanker. At least while she screamed at me and kicked the back of my seat in the car, I didn’t scream back; but I failed to dig for any deeper story. After we picked Nick up, Jesse innocently started telling me about a break dancer who came to school today to do a presentation. Among other things, he was doing the crotch grab-and-grind that Michael Jackson popularized.

Ah. Of course.  There was a reason her obsessions with sexuality had bubbled up. I should have hunted first, instead of just assuming she had let things get out of hand today through lack of effort. She didn’t just go to the red zone; she was ushered there as well, by the school, however inadvertently.

So if I was queen, I would add this to the parental exhortation, in fine print somewhere on that stupid calendar, because I wish someone had said it to me when Jesse was in first grade, so that I could have been a better parent to her. I wish someone would keep saying it to me now:

If your child had a bad day, STOP. Take a breath before you react. Before you get suspicious, angry, or disappointed, before you punish her, before you natter at her… Give her a hug, a kiss, and a snack. Tell her you love her, and nothing will ever change that. Ask her if she’s okay. Ask her to tell you her side. Recognize that every peer in her classroom knows she had a red day, and that is humiliating. Sure, discipline her, have a consequence, whatever. But also help her pick up the pieces. Help her find courage to go back and try again. Tell her about the things she does right.

Tell her she’ll always be pink to you.

 

I did it again (reflections on the joys of mediocre advocacy)

Last week I had my first private conversation ever with an elected official who represents me.  It was terrifying at first and I had an anxiety attack, but everything turned out “okay,” even though she’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat.

Whaaaa?

I know, crazy talk.

So I did it again on Monday. Last week it was by telephone, but this week… He came to my house. Eek.

It meant I actually had to clean up. It was a hefty price to pay to engage in mediocre advocacy, but I was willing to make the sacrifice of having clean floors, cleared surfaces, dust-free furniture, and an absence of mildly gross smells in the kitchen.

This time my assembly rep, Dan Knodle, came over. He actually agreed to come to my house! He wanted to come in the afternoon, his aide told me. I explained the situation in basic terms to make sure Dan knew what he was stepping into: two potentially feral children in the house. He said it was okay.

I prepared the kids over the weekend. In particular, I made sure Jesse knew and was on board about us discussing her mental health journey through the school system. Some of the conversation might be painful for her.

She said yes. Also, she insisted on calling him “Mr. K-noodle.” So did Nick. Much giggling ensued.

I prepared for the worst.

* * * * *

At 4:30 p.m. on Monday, a clean-cut, straight-backed, snappy-casual gentleman knocked on my kitchen door. Definitely a politician. I was nervous, of course, and feeling significant anxiety. But then in stepped Dan and I realized I was on terra firma, my own kingdom, the place where I am the boss of all things. I felt good. It occurred to me that Dan has some courage to visit strangers, albeit constituents, in their homes.

Any stranger who comes into my house with an agenda of any kind is immediately at a disadvantage, because the very first thing you have to do is take off your shoes. I try to be nice about it, but Americans like their shoes. With Dan I said something like, “We have a strictly shoe free house. Would you mind taking off your shoes? If you’re not comfortable with that, it’s okay, but also you could put on my husband’s slippers to be more comfortable.”

Awkward.

I invited Dan in and suggested we stay in the kitchen, because the furniture in our living room is beyond disgusting, thanks to the existence of children. And there we sat in my kitchen and talked, for a full hour.

 

It was a sprawling conversation, but I only want to tell you about the important things.

* * * * *

Dan arrived with very little idea of what I wanted to chat about. So I gave him a copy of the mental health initiative that’s in Governor Walker’s budget. Six million dollars to provide staff training and to increase mental health services on school campuses. Dan took it in like a good Republican: “This is new money.”

Yup, I said, it’s new money. It’ll probably require a new employee in the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). And it’s really important that we spend the money, though I would prefer a “zero” after the “six.”

I’m not sure he thought that was funny.

In fact, he said he wasn’t aware of the provision at all until I brought it to his attention.

GOOOOOOOOOOOL, screamed a tiny voice inside my brain. I just scored a tiny point, because the first voice Dan was going to hear about this initiative was mine, and the first story he was going to hear about it was Jesse’s. I never underestimate the power of a first mover advantage.

* * * * *

What followed was a long discussion about how children with mental health challenges are, as I sometimes say, the bottom dwellers of school intervention, relegated to the counselor’s office as disciplinary problems and truants. Teachers frequently don’t even know what clues to look for to identify basic symptoms of common disorders like anxiety, OCD, tic disorders, and depression — let alone how to work with them in a classroom setting. And there’s still this wall of stigma, which leads people to believe that “developmental disabilities” are things schools can address, but “mental illnesses” are best left to the private medical sector.

I made my big picture pitch. When it comes to disabilities, the broad arc of history in our public schools has been one of expanding inclusion and comprehension. We used to exclude pretty much everyone with differences from “regular” classrooms and schools. But now we have this growing awareness that schools can and should, through well-trained staff and in collaboration with parents, ensure a robust and inclusive education for people with physical disabilities, birth defects, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, and a wide range of differences. My kids’ school system commonly and confidently provides supports to students with a ton of different issues.

So why should we not provide the same confident supports to people with mental illnesses? Why can’t we start to see those as “disabilities” as well? They are, after all, lifelong conditions that people have to learn to cope with, live with, deal with, just like any other disability. We’re not asking schools to treat mental illnesses through teaching staff, but rather to do the same thing they do for other disabilities: provide supports, develop accommodations and modifications, show compassion and understanding, refer children to private therapy if that’s appropriate.

I think I got a little excited. I discovered I was leaning forward in my chair toward Dan (I hope I didn’t get in his personal space, because he would be too polite to tell me). My arms were flapping around in big arcs, apparently to demonstrate my vision of expanding services for children. I think I was getting bug-eyed.

Dan expressed some surprise.  He apparently had not been aware that mental illnesses like Jesse’s aren’t viewed as “developmental disabilities” and don’t provide as good a passport to services.

GOOOOOOOOOL!! Screamed something inside me. I just scored another tiny point.

I taught my representative something. It wasn’t because I’m an amazing advocate. It’s just because we were talking, and he was listening, and he asked the right questions. All I had to do was take the chance of answering them.

Dan, a Republican, shared his thoughts about how spending money like this on early interventions will likely cost the state less in the long run because of improvements in outcome for people at risk. Yes, Yes, I said. I, a Democrat, shared my thoughts on how lucky Jesse is to have well-to-do and well-educated parents who can  provide private supports and advocacy, and how I would like kids whose parents can’t provide those supports to still have as much success and support as my Jesse. Yes, yes, said Dan.

We were seeing the same coin from two sides. We connected, I think, on fundamentals.

* * * * *

As we wound things down, Dan offered me a couple eye-opening thoughts.

Now that he’s aware of this provision in the governor’s budget, if it ever comes up on the chopping block he’ll be able to say, “I have a constituent who cares very deeply about this budget item.” In his little list of budget issues, there’s a “K” for keep or a “P” for protect next to this item.

GOOOOOOOOOOOL!!

My tiny voice made that happen. How cool is that?

If and when this is voted in with the budget, he added (and he seemed to think it has a good chance of making it through), I would have homework to do. I could make sure my school district applies for a grant under the program that’ll be set up with this new money. If there were any hiccups, I could follow up with Dan and our state senator to ask for their assistance in the grant process.

I can do that?

Yes. Apparently, as a voter and constituent, I can. I actually have tiny power that goes along with my tiny voice.

What a concept.

* * * * *

I suspect I threw a whole lot of words and information at Dan, and maybe I got too excited at times, and sometimes I made no sense, and I was having a bad hair day, and maybe I was offensive? I don’t know, I really don’t.

Plus every five to ten minutes, one of my kids came into the kitchen with important matters for me to address.

“Mom, can I have a frozen yogurt?”

<Jesse drapes herself over my back and stares silently over my shoulder at Dan.>

“Mom, can I play with the Xbox?”

<Nick stands very close to Dan. I manage to blurt just in time, “You’re not allowed to jump on Mr. Knodle.”>

“Mom, I’m going to the basement so I won’t interrupt you. Okay? Can I do that?”

All of that makes me a pretty mediocre advocate and human being, I guess. But I still feel like I did the right thing, inviting Dan into my home, and taking time to tell him too many details about what’s on my mind when it comes to mental health issues. Someday maybe it’ll be something else, something more controversial or more important. But Dan and I know each other just a little now, and I hope we’ve laid a good first paving stone on our journey as representative-and-constituent.

We may just be two tiny voices in Wisconsin, but we’re listening and trying, and I have to give myself (and of course Dan) credit for that.

If you’ve ever had a pack of goldfinches land in your yard, then you know that it doesn’t take many tiny voices to make a beautiful noise. So whoever you are, reading this, if you haven’t done it already, go make your tiny voice heard. You might be pleasantly surprised by what happens, even in these challenging times.

The terrors of advocacy

Today I did something I’ve never done before: I spoke with an elected official to advocate about something I care about.

I experienced near-panic as the appointed time for the call approached. I sat with my notes, reviewing the budget item I wanted to talk about, going over my talking points, re-reading the material I had emailed ahead of time to my state senator. I fussed about the kitchen, remembering to get myself a glass of water in case I developed paralyzing dry-mouth during the call.

10:30 arrived and the call came in. I answered with trepidation, though I hope my voice didn’t shake too much.

It was the senator’s aide, calling to let me know the call would be delayed by 10 minutes.

Great. Ten more minutes to wallow in my terror. I sat still in my chair for a moment, filled not only with fear, but also with gratitude that the senator had been forced to turn my in-person meeting into a telephone call, because now as we talked, I could shake my legs wildly to vent my anxiety without her noticing. 

* * * * *

I was a piano geek from when I was really little, and a performance major in college. I spent my early years doing piano things — recitals, concerts with the local youth orchestra, accompanying gigs, money-making gigs where I played background music for events, early church services on Sundays, master classes, pretty intense competitions. Eventually I guess I habituated to a lot of the performance anxiety I experienced, though for big solo events I still had panic attacks accompanied by bouts of diarrhea.

Then I was a litigator for twelve years. I participated in mediations and arbitrations and jury trials and evidentiary hearings, took and defended depositions, made arguments to judges, met with mean partners and confused witnesses and scary opposing counsel, and did all sorts of other stuff that made me pretty darn anxious. I guess eventually I habituated to a lot of those terrors as well.

I’ve spent the last seven years advocating in various ways for Jesse in the school system and in extracurriculars and in the medical system. I meet with people, talk with people, share information with people, write emails and letters to people, argue with people, beg people for what Jesse needs. It all makes me anxious, but I’ve gotten used to the players and mostly we’ve developed collaborative relationships and it’s not so bad anymore.

You would think talking with my state senator on the phone for ten minutes would be no big deal.

But I feel a lot of generalized social anxiety just thinking about meeting with or calling any legislative peeps. I can’t explain it. It just is. Still, as the moment of this call approached, I was shocked to find that my mood was approaching full-on panic. It was BAD. My stomach churned. My heart rate was badly elevated. My skin crawled. My armpits started to smell. I was having trouble breathing. I paced around the house shaking out my arms and legs, and cracking my neck again and again.

* * * * *

So finally the actual  call came from my senator. I managed to pick up the phone without dropping it. I prepared myself for a call that would undoubtedly leave me feeling inadequate, thick-tongued, and foolish.

My state senator’s name is Alberta Darling. She’s the chair of the joint finance committee here in Wisconsin, which makes her very powerful indeed, and that makes me a lucky constituent.

I had already informed her scheduling aide what I wanted to talk about, which is a line item in Governor Scott Walker’s budget that proposes about $6 million to support school initiatives relating to mental health — basically training for screening, intervention and referral; and grant funding to help schools form collaborative relationships with local mental health providers so students can obtain services more easily. It’s not much, and it’s not enough, but it’s a start.

A couple days ago I had emailed the aide an article on mental health issues in children that ran last year in the  Milwaukee Magazine, in which Jesse was highlighted. I sent links to a couple blog posts of mine that touched on school issues Jesse has contended with. I just figured, why not do what professional advocates say we’re supposed to do, tell an authentic story that explains why something matters?

Senator Darling started right in on our call with, “I just want to tell you up front…”

I cringed in real time with the words, and I prepared to do battle.

But she didn’t go there. Instead, she told me she fully supports the proposal. She got Walker to increase the budget amount assigned to it. She gets it. She supports more funding for mental health services for children in schools. It’s a terrible problem. We need to help. I want to tell you that up front, she said, so you don’t think you need to convince me.

Huh.

Thank you, I said.

Then I waited for her to find an excuse to hang up quickly on me, since she didn’t need me to convince her.

But she didn’t go there. She just sort of… outwaited me. And listened. I told her how happy it would make Jesse to know that our senator understands how important mental health issues are for children. I went on for too long about how Jesse’s “mental illnesses” — Tourette’s and OCD — are poor passports to services, whereas closely related disabilities like ADHD and autism are good passports to services, and that’s not fair. I talked about how unfair it is that children with mental illnesses don’t have well-trained staff in schools to help identify issues and develop toolkits to support their needs, and that these kids are too often chalked off as disciplinary problems.

She listened. She asked questions. She clarified. She seemed to be taking notes.

She thanked me for my advocacy.

WTF?

She invited me to come testify at a joint finance committee hearing about my support for this budget item. Those hearings are zoos, all-day affairs with massive numbers of people lined up to have their short turn to be heard. I told her Jesse might like to testify, since  this is really her story. Senator Darling sounded delighted, and she suggested I let her aide know if we were coming so that she could anticipate us and invite us up earlier in the day to testify, instead of making Jesse wait around interminably.

WTF?

We wound up the call and said cordial good byes, and I sat back, relieved to find that I was still alive and still all of one piece, and also I hadn’t peed my pants.

* * * * *

So here’s the weird punch line: I, a lifelong Democrat, am planning to go testify at an open hearing in support of a hard-core Republican governor’s budget proposal to put $6 million new dollars into mental health initiatives in public and charter schools. My senator, also a hard-core Republican, supports the measure as well. And if it makes it through, I’m going to thank them.

WTF?

It occurs to me that one of the reasons I fear political advocacy is that it creates an internal dissonance in this overwhelmingly polarized, hyper-partisan age. We are either Democrats or Republicans, and any third or fourth option is meaningless. We’re like two feral packs of dogs, one on each side of a bottomless ravine, slavering and snarling at one another across an unconquerable divide.

But life isn’t so simple, and the broad range of issues we face — not only at the national level but also in our local communities — are too complicated to fit into a binary bracket. This is a time and place in American history where everyone not only deserves to be heard, but needs to be heard. There has to be value in speaking, and speaking, and speaking, as respectfully and persistently as we can, to the values and policies that matter to us as humans, not as Ds or Rs or Is. 

So I think I will accept the internal dissonance, because maybe it’s a fiction, and I’ll keep on calling and meeting with elected people, even if we disagree on a lot of issues. There are more nonpartisan issues in this world than we know, I’m thinking — we are, after all, human beings first, not political affiliations first. And as weird and awful as other people’s political positions may seem to me, I know it’s time for me to start looking for some basic shared values that underlie our different points of view. Because I know they’re there, those shared values. They have to be, or else we’re doomed. 

And here’s the thing. For me, political activism is about making the world better, for the future, for humanity, and for my children. I would throw myself in front of a freight train for my kids. I would exchange my life for theirs without a second thought. I would chew my own arm off if it meant a better life for my children. I would give up anything for them. 

I can also talk to my legislative representatives for them, despite my fears and social anxiety. It’s probably a better option than dying or chewing off limbs. 

 

 

 

Why I don’t homeschool (episode 4972)

I dragged myself out of bed this morning, my nose still congested five days into a cold that’s been just bad enough to make me kind of miserable and deny me sleep,  but not bad enough to take me down into bed-ridden incompetence. In some ways that’s the worst kind of cold, because I don’t have a legitimate excuse for sitting around being lazy. I have to make up fake excuses instead. Excuse me, alternative excuses.

I sat up and tried to breathe through my clogged sinuses. I stretched my feet before I stood, so that the pain from my plantar fascitis (plantar fascist is more like it) wouldn’t make me fall over. I hobbled over to the bathroom and got through my morning routine. (Not much to it really. Eye drops. Pee. Brush teeth. Avoid looking in mirror. Dress in something not stained or smelly). I hobbled downstairs and got to work on breakfast and school lunches, alongside Anthony.

Some days, right at this point, when I’m feeling tired of this never-ending routine, when I can’t bear the thought of packing another lunch, when I’ve been sick and I can barely get my eyelids to lift off my eyeballs… I wonder what it would be like to homeschool. I wouldn’t have to make school lunches. I wouldn’t have to rush about on someone else’s schedule. I wouldn’t have to worry about making sure the kids take the right books, papers, and equipment with them to cover the next seven hours without me. I wouldn’t have to worry about whether the curriculum they’re stuck in is appropriate for their developmental levels and current interests.

I could sleep in. Sleeping in is a significant factor favoring homeschooling.

Also if we home schooled, we could eat when we want, learn when we want, and go outside when we want. We could be doing a lot of very cool stuff.

But I know there are significant impediments to home schooling, mostly involving my personality and all the questions. I would have to decide once and for all (unlike in this written piece so far) whether homeschooling is one word or two. If it’s one word, does that make me more Germanic? Because I don’t think I’m Germanic at all, but in that language they like to string lots of words together to make new words, right? If I homeschool instead of home school, do I have to teach my kids German?

Does it still count as home schooling if I outsource 80% of the actual education to others? Why isn’t that called “private tutoring”? Is it still homeschooling if I have the kids do all their learning through on-line courses and materials? Why is that home schooling and not computer schooling or on-line schooling? Do I have to make flash cards and maintain an apocalyptic supply of glue sticks? Can I get away with unschooling and just do whatever the *#)% I want on any given day? Will my children still have good hygiene skills if someone doesn’t tell them twenty times a day to take a squirt of hand sanitizer before doing the next activity? Does digging for worms and making a garden count as physical education? Does trying to figure out the vector of falling leaves and catch them before they hit the ground count as science? Does using the garden hose on the kids count as giving them a bath?

Hm.

Gosh it’s been a while since this happened, but… I can’t remember what I was going to tell you about. I’m pretty sure this isn’t it. Hold on a second while I rummage.

* * * * *

AH! That took a few minutes. Here we go:

I woke up this morning and made it downstairs. (Right, that’s where I got distracted.) The kids came down for breakfast and we had a pretty typical morning conversation as we ate. Nick was joyfully shouting completely random numbers for no apparent reason, while Jesse hung her head in moping annoyance. “Forty one!” “Nine hundred fifty two!” As I headed to the basement to find a juice box for each kid’s lunch, I yelled  back at Nick, “Every time you say a number, I’ll say one back!”

So we did that for a couple iterations with integers, and then when it was my turn again I shouted “PI!”

Anthony and I cheerfully explained pi and why it’s a unique and important and cool number, but there was zero interest in the seven- and eleven-year-old set in our household.

Nick said another number. I answered, “i!” Anthony explained about this important imaginary number.

Nothing.

We went again. This time I said “C, from C equals M C squared! Speed of light!”

Huh?

We had a curiosity-filled conversation about whether it’s in fact true that the speed of light is as fast as anything  can go, and what light-years mean, and how the speed of light is different from the speed of sound, and how it’s all waves. Or particles. Or waves. Or something else.

We stuck with waves. Anthony remarked on how cool it is that sound comes at us in WAVES, and then I tried to explain how a sonic boom happens when something approaches and exceeds the speed of sound. I used the fingers of one hand to show how the waves start to smoosh up closer and closer together, and my other hand was the jet getting faster and faster and causing the waves to smoosh even tighter until they were all smooshed up together, and then BOOM!

It’s kind of hard to explain actually, isn’t it. Oh well. If I were a home schooling mom, I thought, we could spend the next week studying light and sound, and how cool would that be. I’d actually learn something.

I should have let my mind dwell on that, but instead I was mindful, I did the mindful thing, I mindfully returned the present and mindfully continued to interact in the present moment with my mindful family. This is when I made a crucial mistake.

In a sorry attempt to make a joke, I said, if Nick ran faster than the speed of sound, it would be more like a sonic shriek than a boom.

Nick thought that was funny. I suggested he give it a try—

Wait, what?

What did I say?

Why? Why would I do that? WHY???

As the words came out of me, like a tic-ish blurt over which I have no control, Jesse hung her head so low her nose almost touched her plate, and she almost imperceptibly shook her head in a tooth-gritting silent scream. Anthony muttered, “please don’t. No.”

Nick got up from the table and skipped into the living room. Everything was still. Three people in the kitchen breathed a sigh of relief.

A short moment later, Nick started screaming at maximum volume as he raced around the house.

It turns out that Nick can make a sonic shriek even without achieving the speed of sound.

 

And this is why, when I dropped Nick off at school earlier than usual today, the thought of home schooling was far from my mind. Instead, I was filled with even more gratitude than usual for the extraordinary teachers who take my children, day after day, and fill their academic cups. Without me there.

nuclear option

One of the great side effects of having a child in therapy for many years has been my blossoming understanding of some of my own issues.

I’ve learned a bit about OCD and finally can acknowledge that, given a chance, most psychologists would diagnose me.

I have a lot of counting behaviors. I count random stuff aimlessly all the time, and I look for certain number sets. Just for fun, I used to tell myself, but I’m recognizing it as a function of OCD now. I make lists about anything and everything, and then I rewrite the lists, and I number the lists, and then I reorder them, and count again to make sure I haven’t dropped items, and so on. I used to lie awake at night, obsessively counting how many years of my life are likely to remain, as compared to the years that  have passed, and calculating how many days of the remainder of my life I would actually spend with my parents (pretty depressing calculation when you live thousands of miles away, really). I’ve tried to cut that out, but recently I realized I’ve just replaced it with counting days and hours. How many hours until I have to pick up the kids; how many days left in the week; how many weeks left in the school year. I can spend a whole day checking in every 15 minutes or so on how much time I have left before I have to go get Jesse from school.  It can be debilitating. I’ve set five weekday alarms on my phone for place markers through the day, as an aid in getting me to stop checking the clock. They help a little, but only a little. I spend my time counting the minutes until the alarm will go off.

I become obsessed with tasks. Badly, down to tiny details. Anthony is kind and says it’s just how I do things. I read and plan and read and plan before I start home improvement projects. I buy too many books, I make the inevitable lists and develop pages and pages of calculations about costs and materials and time and so on. Yes, some of this makes sense, but I inevitably go too far. It’s overkill — it weighs me down and slows me down, without adding value at some point.

I’m a disordered person, but in certain limited contexts I become extremely and unreasonably obsessed with having things a particular way, and I’m hypercritical of jobs that I do. The tile that didn’t go in just exactly right, the wood finish that isn’t perfect, the seam that has a bump in a stitch, the sentence that isn’t quite right. It drives me crazy.

And worst and most important of all, I apply an extreme moral code to myself, one that I can’t meet.  My behavior is never good enough, my choices never mature enough, my communications never thoughtful enough, my actions never responsible  enough, my heart never generous enough. And as a parent? My god. I’m a walking fail. I should have the word tattooed on my forehead. Everything is my fault.

It turns out I picked a couple perfect professional venues for expressing these qualities. As a classical musician, I walked into a world that’s well suited to someone who counts obsessively, focuses on minute details, and is hypercritical of herself. The harsh feedback from teachers was never as harsh as my own inner voice, so I could take it. As a billing attorney, I stepped into a world where I could break down my hours into 3-minute segments (.05 of an hour) and count my days out beautifully. And also there was the constant criticism, the threat of malpractice and incompetence and failure leering over my shoulder, perfectly in tune with my own self-loathing.

* * * * *

But there’s another aspect  to my self loathing, which I’ve refused to acknowledge openly until now. I think I’ve been the subject of abusive gas lighting my whole life.

I know, I know, I make fun of pop culture phrases like gas lighting, and they’re emotionally monosyllabic. But it happens to be a perfect fit here. I have a brother, three years older than me, who’s spent my entire life putting me down. Hard as it is to admit it, I’ve allowed it to shape my self image.

When I was little, he told me I was a cry baby and a big baby. But it wasn’t really as normal as it sounds, I realize now. As little kids he would punch me so hard it left bruises, and then mock me when I cried about the pain. He never apologized. Instead, even into adulthood, he would complain that I bit him so hard I made him bleed and show people some alleged scar. He didn’t mention the way he beat me up. I was the bad one.

As the years progressed, the words and accusations changed, though the physical abuse attending the words didn’t. You’re stuck up. You think you’re better than everyone. Shut up, bitch. Punches and shoving were inevitable, and bruises. He never apologized.

You’re a tattle.

Only I wasn’t. I didn’t show the bruises to my parents. I was ashamed of them. I kind of felt like they were my fault. If I were tougher, and not a cry baby, and if I could gain a little on the 50 pounds he had on me (probably closer to 90 by the time we were in high school), I could stand up for myself better. If I weren’t so stuck up he wouldn’t get so mad. Was I stuck up? I wasn’t sure. I was willing to ask myself that question. Why else would my brother beat up on me so much and put me down so much and pick fights with me so much?

He punched holes in the walls of our house, screamed at all of us, intimidated everyone. I helped mom patch the holes. So I was a kiss ass. I thought I was helping mom through a really, really hard time because her son had screamed at her and called her names and wrecked the house. But the gas lighting, combined with my own OCD, worked. Was I a kiss-ass because I helped mom? I couldn’t help but wonder about it. It never occurred to me that this idea was pure nonsense.

By high school I was an A student. I didn’t especially like being an A student. I didn’t really tell anyone. There was a voice in my head, in my real world, and in the bruises on my arms. My brother never congratulated me about my academic successes. He put me down because of them. You’re a stuck up bitch, you think you’re better than everyone because of  your grades. Did I think that? I couldn’t help asking. I didn’t want to be stuck up. I just wanted to get into college on scholarships because my parents couldn’t afford to pay and I really, really needed to get out of my home town, plus my mom told me she would probably kill herself if I didn’t have a successful run through college. So I needed to get A’s and be on top of things. I should have been proud, but I wasn’t. The gas lighting worked.

When I was 16 and my brother was 19, I was trapped in a car with him driving to our parents’ small business. He was doing  his road rage thing, and scaring the crap out of me, and I asked him to stop. He started punching me in the arm as he drove, tailgating all the while, and yelling at me. He punched me over and over again, deliberately in the same spot, and in that moment I did something I’d never done before. I mocked him. “Oh big maaaan,” I crooned, “Aren’t you the tough guy, beating up on your sister who weighs a hundred pounds less than you. Tough guy, what a tough guy.” It didn’t stop his punches, but it stopped my tears. When we arrived, he got out of the car, still yelling. He stuck his head back in and spit a giant wad of spittle in my face, called me a “F**ing C**T,” and stormed off.

I never got an apology, though it was the last time he ever hit me. That event was my fault, in his view. He was stressed out. He had this issue and that issue. I was a bitch. I was stuck up. I always got everything I wanted. I did this bad, and I was that bad, and I was bad bad bad and it was all my fault, and it was never his fault.

And so it has continued through the years, through the half century of my life. After we were adults, the put downs and insults continued, though there haven’t been as many opportunities for them, and though there have been moments of calm when the ugliness doesn’t rise up. Even with this blog, where I mock myself frequently without mercy, my brother likes to pile on. Yeah, that’s true about you, he’ll comment about some self-criticism. There’s no irony in him.

As adults, he also added a new element — the threat of disowning me. “You’re not my sister anymore.” “I’m done with you,  have a good life.” “I never need to speak with you again.” “If  you don’t  blah blah blah, you don’t ever need to be part  of my life again.”

And every time, I’ve let it go. I’ve made excuses for him. Maybe I was too harsh. Maybe I was unkind. Maybe I wasn’t sensitive enough to his profound self esteem issues. Family first. Mom needs us to be a family. And so on. He never apologizes, because it’s never his fault. It’s always mine.

So it happened again over this weekend. His daughter, my niece, and I had a back and forth that devolved to her doing the same stuff he’s done to me for my entire life — calling me names. I’m disrespectful, I’m rude, I’m a bully, I’m this, I’m that. For some reason, this weekend I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I hit back.

The details don’t matter. What matters is that I went low. I definitely did not go high. I was acutely upset and I spoke harshly, including criticizing my brother. My niece shared my words with her dad (is that tattling? I’m not sure), and then he sent me a text chewing me out for going after his kid and telling me to “have a good life.” Also the classic: “You don’t know me.”

But I do, I thought sadly. I’ve known you my whole life. You’re the jerk who’s been gas lighting me my whole life.  This is what I wrote back:

I’m sorry. She was really nasty to me. And had I not been so angry and hurt, I would have added that you’ve changed so much. I love you. I’m sorry you want to reject me. It feels  like a lifelong story of you looking for reasons to hate me. I guess you finally have a reason. But I would still throw myself under a bus for you.

And still I couldn’t help it. I still felt like the bad person.

I know, all the way to my bones, that my brother will never apologize to me for anything. Nor will his daughter. It is not in their constitutions. And they will say I don’t know them at all, but on this I surely do. Nothing is ever their fault; it’s always someone else’s.

Actually, it’s always my fault, because I’m rude, I’m stuck up, I’m a bitch, I’m nasty, I’m a know-it-all, I’m a horrible person.

They are gas lighters.

* * * * *

I cried about it for a while, with Anthony beside me, thinking hard thoughts I’ve had almost since I can first remember having thoughts. Am I a bad person and a cry baby and a stuck up bitch and a know-it-all and too pushy and everything else this person has ever called me?

But last night something new happened. A light dawned unexpectedly, one that’s been waiting to dawn for a long time. Anthony had read the entire exchange between my niece and me, and between my brother and me. I wanted his insight and advice. He spoke these simple words, from the place of love and compassion that he’s always reserved for me: “Please don’t beat yourself  up too much, Carla. It’s not your fault.  Sometimes we get pushed too far. You’re allowed to be human. You tried your best. They went too far.”

I think maybe it’s the years of therapy with Jesse paying off for me. I finally felt it in my bones. Racing thoughts filled my head. Am I being too hard on myself because of an extremist moral code that’s a symptom of OCD? Is it actually rationally possible that everything is my fault and the other humans involved did nothing wrong? Is it rationally possible that Anthony, who’s always brutally honest with me, is lying to me this time instead of letting me know I really screwed the pooch?

* * * * *

I went to sleep with a surprisingly light heart and woke up this morning from a sound night’s sleep. I felt at ease as I drowsed in bed, which is really unusual for me under any circumstances. Many thoughts swam through my head, as Nick snuggled up his little body next to mine:

I’ve been really patient with my brother’s abuse of me through these many years. It’s okay to not feel patient anymore, especially when one of his children looks to be carrying it to the next generation. Last straws happen, and it’s okay to draw a line in the sand. It’s okay not to accept his false image of me anymore.

Anthony has offered me an alternative truth about myself through the years, persistently, despite my rejection of it. He has told me so many times that I’m a decent person, a kind person, a good person. Why does he have to keep telling me? Because I keep rejecting it. Maybe it’s time to see not only my flaws through other people’s eyes, but also the things that make me lovable and good. Maybe Anthony’s truth about me is more true than my brother’s.

I make friends. I’m always surprised by this, and I sometimes express that surprise aloud. Why are we friends? Why do you like me? It’s kind of embarrassing. Pathetic, really. And how many times have my friends answered me with jolly kindness and an eye-rolling head shake. I guess they don’t think I’m a selfish, stuck up, self-aggrandizing bitch. They think I’m okay. More than that, they seem to think I’m a really good person. Maybe I should respect their opinions.

It’s very hard to explain how profoundly difficult that is for me to accept. It actually makes me weep, to realize I’m okay. I have to rationalize it, still, over and over again, like Stuart Smalley.

I know I listen to others about myself, because otherwise Anthony would stop bothering to be honest with me about my negative behaviors. My friends wouldn’t mock me and laugh. You can’t do that to a person who takes stuff personally and thinks she’s right about everything.

I know I’m open to debate and different world views, because I have open exchanges with conservative friends about big issues and we don’t tell each other to go away. That wouldn’t happen if I were disrespectful and rude.

I have easy-going, healthy relationships with my other brothers. We speak openly with each other about our weaknesses, without anger or bile or accusation. If the problem was me and only me, that could not be true.

And the hardest thought, but one I’m feeling at ease with today, is this. A person who says he’s disowning me over and over again, through decades of my life, isn’t just making idle threats. He’s bullying and abusing me. I have the power to dismantle the threat by acknowledging it in the open air — as I am boldly doing right here, right now, despite some misgivings — and simply accepting it. So I accept the very real possibility that this relationship is over. I didn’t end it, but I don’t need to try to rekindle it anymore. I accept the very real possibility that I may never again spend time with a person who brings a lurking sense of hostility to every encounter with me, a person who has spent a lifetime making gaslit, false accusations that I suck to the root of me. I’ll be sad for sure, because family is family, but I think I’ll also enjoy the absence of this source of stress.

I’m not saying I’m perfect. I’m always going to take responsibility for my own words and actions, and of course I feel badly about word-battling with a grown-up teenager. I should have gone high. And yes, I suck, because well, people suck and I am a people. But also, I’m allowed to look after myself. I’m allowed to feel good about myself, even if I make big mistakes. Not OCD nor some mean-spirited gaslighter is going to take that away from me anymore. Not without a fight anyway.

 

Mommy fail, version 2935.3 (post-Trump edition)

I’ve been yelling at the kids a lot again lately. It will be a lifelong battle for me, I know, but still it gets me down when I flare. I haven’t been doing a good job of walking away when the weird rage bubbles up. As Anthony says, I need to make a plan again. I need to practice self control.

Don’t make any excuses for me, dear reader. Yes, I’m justified in being aggravated by the kids; but no, I’m not justified in yelling and yelling.

Then again, sometimes I don’t even have to yell to get things all mixed up.

* * * * *

Jesse gets a small allowance every week, and also she gets cash from her grandma for special occasions. She’s welcome to use that dough on what she wants, but she’s a money hoarder. She doesn’t like to spend it. She’s not sure what to do with it. She doesn’t care all that much about things. Nick, not so much. I wouldn’t describe him as greedy, but he’s very interested in spending, usually even before he has the money in hand. He’s destined for debt. Two kids, one house, two very different personalities. Nick’s wallet is always almost empty; Jesse’s is always overflowing.

For a while when she was little, Jesse wanted to take her small wad of cash to school to give to friends she felt were poor. That led to interesting conversations about the unfair stigma associated with being poor in America, and the resulting need for social sensitivity and coyness in how you address the issue.

As she got older, Jesse began to talk about charities. Just last week she was saying again that she wanted to give all her money to a charity. Sometimes when she breaks something expensive, she’ll run upstairs and bring her purse to me in atonement, insisting that I take all the money I need to replace whatever she broke.

Her selfless attitude imbues our lives in small and large ways. We renovated our house a year or so ago, expanding the kitchen and so on. Jesse regularly reminds me that she preferred to the old kitchen better, because it wasn’t so fancy. Thanks to her, I’m always aware of how luxurious our life is compared to most of the world. She gives freely to her brother and her friends. She shares relentlessly.

I know without any question that Jesse is not a greedy or selfish child.

* * * * *

But Jesse also has OCD in a version that fills her head with contrary and taboo thoughts now and then (okay fine, every day), and Tourette’s in a version that compels her to express those thoughts aloud. This can make life aggravating and complicated.

A couple days ago, Jesse was wandering around the house before breakfast with her well-stuffed little money purse in hand. I asked her what she was doing with it. She answered in the strange, almost-chanting timbre that signals she’s expressing unbidden intrusive thoughts. “I’m gonna take it to school to show everyone, and tease them about how I’m richer than them and I’m better than them.”

I knew those words weren’t true. I knew she would never actually do it. I knew those words are contrary to most of what I’ve observed in her behaviors during her brief life. I should have hugged her, reminded her that those thoughts don’t reflect what she actually believes and does, assured her that she’s still a decent and amazing human being despite the intrusive thoughts to which she gives undue weight.

But that’s not what came out of me. In that moment, under the stress of everything that’s been going during the beginning of Trump’s presidency, something snapped a little inside me. It didn’t take me to the yelling rage that unleashes itself on people I love when I’m not working hard enough to beat it back — but someplace really, really sad.

Jesse sat down at the counter for breakfast, with Nick next to her. “That’s really mean, Jesse,” I said unnecessarily; I was practically whispering. “Do you really think you’re better than people who don’t have as much as you?”

It was a stupid question; of course she doesn’t actually think that.

Nick replied promptly and earnestly, “No! We are not better!”

Jesse pondered  for a moment. “No? I mean yes, yes I’m better.” It was her tic voice.

She paused. “No, I’m not.” Ah, that sounded like my true Jesse.

But still, I was stupefied by the initial “yes.” Part of my brain was sending me red alerts. “Warning! Warning! Tourettic OCD in action! Do not respond! Do not respond with anger! Do not be didactic!”

But a bigger, hurting part took over. I grabbed my phone. “You think you’re better than people who are more poor than you, who have less than you? Then let me show you someone you’re better than.”

I don’t know what I looked or sounded like, but I was just pulled together enough to notice the kids had stopped eating and were staring at me, unblinking and anxious.

I searched for “dead toddler refugee” on my phone.  I pulled up this infamous photo of the toddler who drowned as his family escaped from Syria.

Screen Shot 2017-02-01 at 11.37.52 AM.png

(I’m not sure how to give proper  credit here, and I don’t know if I’m violating a copyright law. I know wherever I find this pic it says “Credit: AP photo” so hopefully that takes care of things)

I showed this heartbreaking photo to Jesse, even as my brain told me I was doing wrong. “Look at him, Jesse. See this dead little boy? Look at him. He died trying to get away from war with his family. This is how they found him, washed up on a beach. He had nothing, and he’s dead now. You’re better than him for sure.”

Jesse, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, had a look on her face I could not place; but she was silent and still. I went on, and this is what I said to my children.

You are not better than that little boy; you’re just alive and he’s dead. You’re just lucky you don’t live in a land at war, you don’t live in poverty, you don’t have to run in fear for your life from the soldiers and guns and bombs. You didn’t have anything to do with your good luck! All you should be feeling right now is a whole lot of gratitude for being so lucky.

Being richer doesn’t make us better. But it’s making our country greedier. And now, our president Donald Trump has said that this little boy, even if he had made it alive across the waters, would have no place in America. He isn’t welcome here. Because we’re not rich enough or strong enough to help him.

By now I was in tears. Jesse simply stared at the photo.  I went on, because I couldn’t stop, even as I wandered around the kitchen cleaning up and making school lunches.

This  is the battle of our time, I said. There are children and innocent people dying all over the world right now, and they need help.

“Children?” Nick asked incredulously. He started to cry too as I yammered on quietly.

This is why people like your daddy and me are so upset about Donald Trump, and we want to rise up in protest and action against everything that he stands for. This is about what kind of people we want to be, what kind of basic values we have as human beings. Donald Trump thinks we should think about ourselves first. Do I have a car that’s as nice as I want in my garage? Do I have as much money as I want? Are my clothes fancy enough, and is my closet stuffed full enough? Do I feel safe enough? Do I really have to share the incredible wealth we live in with others, like this little boy who died? He didn’t do anything to anyone! He didn’t deserve to die!

I looked  at the kids pointedly. Do you want to live in a world where we only think about ourselves first?

Nick was bawling by now, I was crying full on, and Jesse’s face had slumped. But they gave me the correct answer.

I asked my kids another question: if I told you we could give some children safe refuge from war and fear and hunger, or I could get a new car instead, which would you choose?

They gave me the correct answer as I wept.

You’re okay with me driving that beater VW until it dies?

“Yes!” they answered. “Drive the old car!”

I asked my kids another question: if I told you our leaders could give us tax breaks so we can have more money in our pockets, or our leaders could have us pay a little more in taxes and spend some of that money to give hope to refugees around the world, which would you choose?

They gave me the correct answer.

The conversation petered out, the tears slowly dried up, and we were silent until it was time to take Jesse to school.

* * * * *

I felt pretty awful afterwards, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that horrible conversation. It was unfair of me to unload these issues on them. It was profoundly unfair of me to imply to Jesse that her intrusive and obsessive thoughts are in any way related to the intentional, deliberate choices being made by the Trump administration and the GOP. I know where her compassionate and generous heart lies.

It was a definitive parenting fail moment, even though I didn’t yell even once.

And yet… And yet I know that my kids need to be aware of what’s going on in the world around them.  Maybe if a two-year-old has to drown to death while escaping from hell, or an innocent five-year-old has to be put in handcuffs at an airport, my seven- and eleven-year-olds could do with some reality checks.

 

IT’S NOT A MUSLIM BAN

People are seriously upset about what they’re calling a “Muslim ban” on immigration to the US. But Donald Trump has spoken about his Executive Order  suspending visas and banning refugees from Syria and a good chunky handful of Muslim-majority countries. “It’s not a Muslim ban,” he told us as he signed the order.

And really, he’s someone we can trust because he always tells the truth, he always tells it like it is, so I’m good. It’s not a Muslim ban, this I know, for the Donald tells me so.

Everyone who matters (i.e., conservatives, republicans, right-wing commentators, Fox News) agrees. Even Paul Ryan says it’s not a Muslim ban. Everyone else, all the other people in the world who see it differently? Hello. They’re liars, cry babies, fakers.  Fake news. Dishonest and crooked media and useless sorry Democrat pansies. I’m making a big “L” with the thumb and forefinger of my right hand and holding it up to my forehead. Losers.

Plus, the EO doesn’t actually say the word “MUSLIM,” so obviously it doesn’t apply to Muslims. Because if the EO was meant to apply to Muslims, Steve Bannon the white nationalist wouldn’t write it in a sneaky way that might avoid using that word but still accomplish the same thing. Duh.

Just like last week I yelled at my daughter about somebody leaving a bunch of dirty clothing all over the floor in her room. I did not mean her. I obviously was not referring to her, because I did not say her name. I just happened to be channeling my yelling in her direction. Duh.

Donald Trump says he’s keeping his campaign promises. This immigration EO is obviously fulfilling one of his promises. Just not the one about Muslims.

Trump said in December 2015 that he was “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” This call is contained in his “Donald J. Trump Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration,” which continues to be posted on his website:

Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 10.36.53 AM.png

But that promise to actually ban Muslim immigration because Muslims are such bad people does not apply to this EO, obviously. So calm down, everyone. Stop getting hysterical. This EO is not the Muslim ban that Donald Trump promised in his Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration.

Duh.

Why I did not join the women’s march

Did you hear about the women’s marches all over the world a couple Saturdays ago, on January 21, 2017? I don’t know how I missed it, but probably it’s because I was still reeling from the massive turnout for Donald Trump’s inauguration. Massive. The biggest inaugural turnout in history. At least, since 1988. For Republican presidents anyway.

Right.

I take it back, I did hear about the marches. But I chose not to go to one, and here’s why, long version.

* * * * *

Last month my mom fractured her femur, the big thigh bone, right where it goes into the hip. To understand the full import of this, you need to see drawings. Here look, I found a picture of a femur:

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 11.19.06 AM.png

Very Flinstones, yeah? Okay, so that ball thing that juts out at the top, that slots into a space in the hip bone, where it can swivel. Mom’s femur broke like this (do enjoy my scientific, sophisticated annotations):

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 1.42.19 PM.png

It’s apparently a very common fracture, which is understandable when you think about how much force that part of the bone has to bear. It’s the cost of having really great swing capacity in our legs so that we can do things like run away from grizzlies in our elementary schools because our teachers don’t carry concealed handguns to protect us.

Just to be clear, the bone didn’t sort of crack a bit. Rather, the bone snapped and shifted, just like I imagine pieces of California will sort of move sidewise and slide off when The Big Quake hits:

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 1.46.10 PM.png

(Didn’t I do a nice job of that with scissors and tape? Can you tell I have a first-grader in the house?)

When I finally understood this, I almost cried, because I know that it was six hours from the fall that caused the fracture to when someone finally called 911. Six hours like that before help came for my mom. Brutal.

Left uncorrected, the bone would have eventually knitted itself back together in this new shape. Given the amount of movement with the break, the doctor estimated Mom’s leg would have been about one inch shorter. Maybe she would have been able to walk, but it would have been like a galumphing crippled old lady for the remainder of her days. Which, if it weren’t so horribly awful, would have reminded me in a demented way of my maternal grandmother, who walked with a pretty good limp because one of her feet had been paralyzed by polio when she was young, before the age of vaccines.

But thanks to modern medicine — science  this is not Mom’s fate.  A surgeon was able to repair the bone using titanium rods. Here is what I saw in the x-rays:

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 1.38.08 PM.png

I kid you not. This is a really good likeness of the size of the rods, though presumably not the color. The short rod was embedded in the ball part. Then it was connected to the enormous rod that was jammed all the way down to the knee in the femur.

I felt like I was looking at an x-ray of Wolverine’s femur. What did they do, pour molten titanium into Mom’s leg? Viewed in two dimensions, the rod was filling more space than the bone. It had to be at least an inch in diameter. I couldn’t really wrap my head around what I was seeing. I made the mistake of asking the doctor how they did it. By the time he got to “reamed the bone,” I was weak-kneed. And I was shocked by the full-length rod. Apparently that’s what they do to prevent further fractures, because the entire femur is reinforced and that rod distributes the load evenly when Mom walks, so it prevents any sort of point-loading.

That surgery was six or seven weeks ago, and my Mom has been 100% sidelined during this early stage of recovery. My brother Mark lives about a mile away, so he’s been her primary caregiver since then. Mom and her husband John can’t drive, so Mark does all the shopping, he takes them wherever they need to go, he fixes whatever needs fixing, he manages all the appointments and prescriptions, he plans and cooks all of their meals, and he fills whatever random financial and personal needs come up.  Also he has three puppies and two full-grown dogs. Long story.

Since I too am a full-time caregiver and housekeeper for two kids, a dog, and a husband, I have a visceral empathy for what Mark is going through.

* * * * *

So last week I flew out to California by myself for a full week, to give Mark a break and hang out with Mom and John. This meant I was leaving the kids alone with Anthony for a week, which was an imposition on everyone, but I really needed to go see my mom and do my part.

I left Wisconsin on Thursday, the day before Trump’s inauguration, and shimmied over to Stockton, the armpit of California. Meanwhile, my brother’s mother-in-law Jane invited me to join her at the Women’s March in Sacramento, an hour away.

I thought and thought about it. I wanted to go. I wanted to join hands with my brothers and sisters resisting Trump. But I couldn’t. I decided that, in this moment and this time, my mom needed me more. She may only be with me for a few more years, and I see her so infrequently.

* * * * *

On the day of the Women’s Marches all over the world, I seemed to reflect a lot of what the Republican Establishment claims to value in women and people. I do not work for an income, with pride: I am a housekeeper and full-time mother by choice, and I take it seriously. My children have great need of me. I used to work, but I quit to become a mom. Since I don’t work for income, I put extra effort into being as supportive a partner as possible of my husband’s career.  I have never had an abortion, though I have miscarried, probably from drinking too much coffee before I knew I was pregnant. (Is that a crime yet?) I’ve never had an extra-marital affair, and I’ve only been married once. I am not on welfare or any public assistance. I don’t do illegal drugs. I don’t do anything illegal that I know of. I’m not an illegal immigrant. I like to think I have a pretty firm moral center, with good values on family, honesty, integrity and —

I do have potty mouth. But let’s be honest, that’s a superficial and silly standard. Plenty of Republicans have potty mouth too. And despite my potty mouth, I will just admit that I would be very, very uncomfortable dressing up as a entire-human-body-size vagina. I’m not sure I could do it.

Right, so I missed the marches because I was fulfilling an obligation and responsibility, borne of familial love and fealty, to cook and clean for my parents and give my brother a much-needed rest from the relentless grind of being a full-time caregiver. But the truth is, I would have marched if it was a dire emergency. I didn’t march on January 21 because I didn’t have to. My brothers and sisters marched for me. They were on it.

* * * * *

I’ve struggled to write much recently, because I find that all my efforts to make myself laugh, with my sarcasm and my grumpy, are failing. I don’t understand my American world right now. After a week of Trump in power — which I think is a more apt description of what he’s doing than the word “office” — I can feel the darkness descending. The worst part of it is the endless gas lighting that’s going on. I have grown so weary of it, so let me just get this off my chest.

I keep hearing that people like me need to understand the Trump voter. Why? Why doesn’t the Trump voter have to understand me instead? I’m part of the cohort that voted for Clinton, and there were more of us. Shouldn’t the majority be understood too?

I didn’t march on January 21, but I would have if I could have, and I have this to say.

Don’t tell me that the post-inaugural marches and protests were about gender identity, or judging others, or victim mindsets, or being sore losers, or whatever you feel like making up. No no no. I believe the marches were so heavily attended because people are really, really upset about being unrepresented. The majority of voters in the national election last November are now unrepresented in the federal government. How are we unrepresented if there are Democrats in both houses, you ask? Because Republican Congressmen and the new president don’t give a shit. They will not compromise, as far as I’ve seen. They don’t have to and they don’t want to:  they own all branches of government. At the state level, they are successfully gerrymandering their way into untouchable majorities, even when voters are evenly divided between D and R. They are planning to push through an ultra-conservative agenda that includes positions that are unequivocally contrary to the will of a majority of the American people on fundamental issues like abortion and healthcare.

Don’t you understand the problem, Trump voter? You should, since your candidate whined about it so much on your behalf: being represented matters. It matters not only to you, but to everyone, including all the people who voted for Clinton. And there were three million more of us than you, if you live in the real world where facts matter. How would you feel if your candidate got the most votes but didn’t win the prize?

How come we’re not allowed to feel the same way?

Don’t tell me that the post-inaugural marches were about putting women down who make more “traditional” choices. Nonsense. The marches were about letting people be who they want to be, in a land governed by a basic notion of liberty and, well, representation. I’ve made traditional choices, and not one person in my expanding universe judges me for it. My relations who marched understood why I stood down on January 21. I got nothing but love for it. Plus a lot of texts and photos from people who knew I was feeling a little left out. I was represented at the marches.

Don’t tell me that the post-inaugural marches were about telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies. What a load of gas-lit nonsense. Legislation that limits a woman’s right to make  choices about her own body constitutes telling people what they can do. Period. I do not recall anything in the Democratic platform that involves legislating limitations on what a woman can do. Not writing and passing laws about limiting a person’s freedom… does not constitute an effort to limit a person’s freedom. (Why do I even have to try to explain this?)

Don’t tell me the post-inaugural marches were anti-Christian and intolerant and meant to exclude. Puh. leez. Worse than nonsense — smug, self-righteous alternative fact, more like. The marchers I knew were Christian, Hindi, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, and everything in between and sideways. They included Republicans, Democrats, independents, and nut wings. They included people who are opposed to abortion (but who believe the best way to win that battle is through compassion and education and contraception, not liberty-denying legislation and ignorance) and people who think it’s fine. They included gun-lovers and pacifists.  They included people of so many ethnicities and national origins. They included men and women, straight and gay and whatever.

And you want to tell me the marches were intolerant and exclusive, from your “we need laws based solely on Euro-Christian values” perspective? That’s goofy.

Don’t tell me you were offended by the post-inaugural marches because they were vulgar, and some people dressed like a big vag, and there was cussing and nastiness. Seriously. You voted for Trump, and you’re offended by vulgarity? Am I missing something?

Trump voter, you really need to understand the people who marched on January 21 a little better. Follow this particular chain of thought with me, for instance: (1) OMG, Trump is a racist and sexist pig who says a lot of really horrible things about women and lots of other people; (2) OMG, Trump lost by 3 million votes but he won the election, and now he’s acting like he has a mandate; (3) I know, let’s make fun of his “grab her by the pussy” comment by dressing like giant vaginas and inviting him to “GRAB THIS.”

It’s that simple, so get over the false moral outrage — it’s not like the people at the march go around in the ordinary course of their lives dressed in giant vag costumes. They were reacting to Trump. It’s a one-off that’s intended to provoke and inspire attention, but it’s not really fashion-forward, yeah? Kind of like Trump saying over and over that Clinton should be in jail, but now he’s done with that because the need for that bile-inspiring soundbite is over.

I have to say, anyone who’s willing to walk around in a 6-foot-tall vagina costume is pretty ballsy. But here’s the thing: the vag suit is about representation. The people who marched feel invisible, unrepresented, silenced. The raunchy signs and costumes were about being acknowledged. They were a way of saying to Trump and the GOP Establishment, “F*^& YOU WITH YOUR SO-CALLED MANDATE. REMEMBER US??? WE’RE STILL HERE AND WE STILL DIDN’T VOTE FOR YOU!!!”

And that’s how hard we have to push, because no one is listening in our federal government right now.

At least not yet. But that may change, if we keep marching.

But let’s not stop at marching, because that’s only the public face of a large battle that lies ahead. Since I could not participate on January 21, I enjoyed no personal catharsis from the marches. I just looked on wistfully. But from the outside looking in, they inspired me profoundly to think about what I’ve been doing and what I need to do. I have a short to-do list, which I hope to pursue fearlessly. Maybe you can too:

Make phone calls to your representatives. Every day. As I learned recently, you would be well-served to include this information: I am Jane Doe. I live in American City and (if it’s someone you vote for) I am your constituent. I am concerned about the issue XYZ, and this is what I want you to do about it.

Write letters and send emails. Every week try to send one letter or email that carefully states your position on something important to you. Send it to one or more of your representatives.

In conversations and on social media like Facebook, don’t let anything go. If someone posts a link or a comment that includes a lie or misunderstanding, don’t let it go. Answer it with facts and sources. As politely as possible, be firm in presenting your positions on important issues. Engage with people who hold different points of view, and make them hear you.

Because right now, if you are opposed to Trump, the only meaningful voice that represents you is your own. Maybe more important, your voice can represent others who cannot speak for themselves. Like my mom, her body broken by a couple fractures over the  last few years, her brain a little off kilter from a stroke. She can barely speak English anymore. Who will represent her in Trump’s America? If all her children get hit by buses or accidentally rounded up by immigration peeps and deported to some other land because we don’t look quite right — or is that quite white? — will there be a safe place for her in this world? Will she be able to get health insurance at all, let alone any that’s affordable? Or will she be the victim of a true death panel, doling out Medicaid coverage from some tiny fixed block grant that has to be triaged? Will our government — the collective voice of the people, after all — be an ugly, angry machine set on silencing dissent and empowering the wealthy, or something better?

So I will speak for myself, and my children, and my mom, and for all the other people who are likely to suffer in the coming days. I will seek representation. And I will remember to thank everyone who marched on January 21, for reminding me that I matter.

 

 

happy inauguration day

Listen, people —

I know I know, that’s a really original lead, right? I feel really creative about that start, it’s big, it’s bold, and even my tiny Trumpian hands can type it easily. It’s very original. Nobody has ever written a better blog post starter, and I promise you, I promise you, people are going to love this blog, we don’t even know what this blog will say, but I promise it will be better than anything you’ve seen before.

Never mind.

I thought about beating the horse dead, but I think I’ll just get right to the point instead: there is nothing new under the sun.

I mean yes, there is, sort of, but really it’s the same sad/happy/horrifying/boring story over and over again, and with today’s inauguration we hit version 4,275,948,104. Point two.

A lot of people are feeling pretty doomsday right now, like Trump is going to destroy everything. And I’m not so sure. Yes, he’s a jerk. Yes, I believe he and the RNC single-party dance of the next two to four years is likely to be pretty disastrous. But, unless something goes truly and horribly wrong, we can keep things from falling off the cliff’s edge. I think.

But it’ll take some work.

* * * * *

There have always been mean, rude people who take credit for anything good that happens and blame others for anything perceived as bad; who brag vainly about themselves and put others down; who lead by terrorizing instead of inspiring; who think winning is the one thing that matters above all else, before honor and justice and liberty. Trump, despite his delusions of grandeur, is just another expression of this sad and bitter archetype, just another ugly blip in the grand scheme of things.

That’s all he is.  A data point, and a little one at that.

There have also always been people who work hard to be kind and well mannered; who understand that we share in a collective bounty of success and failure; who lift others up and celebrate others’ victories; who understand that winning for the wrong reasons is just another face of failure.

We’re still here, each of us another data point, each of us as big and as small as Trump. We have as much power as we’re willing to exert. No orange-faced data point can take that power away.

* * * * *

There have always been hoarding, greedy people who were either born rich or got rich, sometimes with hard work and always with good luck; who don’t have an altruistic bone in their bodies; who spend their lives complaining about every single penny they have to pay in taxes and whining about how life is soooo unfair to them (while the undocumented resident cleans their toilets). So Trump and most of his cabinet fit in as little blips on that story line. Whatever.

There have also always been selfless, inclusive, generous souls, some rich and some poor, who are driven to do right by all human beings without cold triage, and without reference to their own interests and needs; who understand that humanity will ultimately stand and fall together like a house of cards; who feel in their bones that even one lost, unfulfilled life is one too many.

We’re still here, and there are more of us than the Trumps. We know this because we voted for someone else. We know this because, in the big arc of history, despite setback after setback, life is getting better for most human beings. Not in a two-car-garage-and-great-manufacturing-jobs-in-America way, but in a more baseline way — less hunger, less poverty, less disease and death, less discrimination, less abandonment, the world over.

There are more of us than there are xenophobes. Not even a cabinet worth more than 14 billion dollars can change our blippy little minds.

* * * * *

There have always been people who are mean and vicious, murderous and violent, bigoted and bitter. Trump happens to speak for them in this moment — but he’s just one face and one voice. He’s not the power behind the ugliness. People are, little people. All these little blips running around on planet earth, each of us as weak and as powerful as Trump.

As for our planet earth, let’s not panic too much on her account. Trump can’t destroy Mother Earth. Human beings may well destroy the environmental conditions we need to survive in, but that’s not going to take down sweet Gaia. She will keep on keeping on, long after our species has expired, and probably  arrange for a whole new mega-species to take over in 70 or 80 million years.

Take heart in that, my friends.

Anyway, we’ve been busy destroying our environment with greenhouse gases and pollution for more than a century, long before Trump took office. If we want to slow global climate change and pollution, we can do that: the sixty-odd million humans who voted for someone other than Trump can stop driving and flying as much, stop buying and using as much, start buying more locally grown food, and so on and so on. We have the power to do that. 60 million of us have way, way more power to change the environment than one Donald Trump. Maybe it’s time to own that power instead of handing it over to corporations.

* * * * *

So I propose we go ahead and do that, stop giving away power, we people who are deeply upset by today’s inauguration. I propose we step out of the sad sack of depression and anger we’ve dropped ourselves into. Let’s get our grumpy on and get to work, not en masse at marches that make us feel good but are really hard to organize, but as little random blips haranguing our leaders and corporations from all corners. This is one thing that has changed in the history of humanity: we are seriously connected. Use it. Call your congressional reps and senators and local legislators and governors incessantly to tell them what you want and what you care about. It’ll be humiliating at first, but you’ll get over it. Sign petitions. Write letters — to elected officials, to corporations, to media outlets. Never stop.

Find out who needs help in your community, and then help them. Give stuff to people who are broke, if you’re not broke yourself. Lend money if you can, to friends who need it. Donate your time if you have it, to charitable organizations and public schools. Just do something, anything, to help someone out.

Be a pain in the ass blip, for goodness sake. I don’t know — sky’s the limit, right? Why let the Orange Man stop us from being the decent people we believe we are?

Happy inauguration day, Mr. Trump.