Jackie Lee, Unwitting Ben Carson Apologist

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Within the past year, I have thrice found myself in the untenable position of defending Ben Carson on Facebook. The first time, I was in a lengthy Facebook argument about how colleges should not be allowed to see an incoming student’s behavior records. I defended my position by citing Ben Carson as an example:

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I still think I’m right. People do all kinds of crazy, irrational things when they’re young. A child’s behavior doesn’t necessarily predict whether that child, once an adult, will hit the moving target called “success.”

I thought that would be the last time I’d defend Ben Carson. On the one hand, respect for his skill as a neurosurgeon, his long career, and the efforts he’s made to save people’s lives. He has a lot of good karma. But when it comes to Ben Carson, I’m usually on offense. I’ve laughed at that homoerotic painting he has in which he and Jesus are sitting around in bathrobes. I have shaken my head at his assertion that the pyramids, in which archaeologists found and extensively documented the tombs of kings, were built by Joseph to store grain. Even while defending him, I called him a human coma.

This week, I once again found myself defending Doctor-turned-Secretary Ben Carson in a Facebook thread. Our bumbling hero, in his initial speech as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, equated slavery—in which people were kidnapped; stuffed into the compartment of a ship without adequate food, water, and sanitation; sold once they arrived in America; and forced to labor for their owners, and often to watch their children become slaves for those same people, for the rest of their lives—to someone deciding to leave their country to seek a better life in America.

This reaction from Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., Chair of the Department of African American studies at Princeton, says it all:

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The same Facebook acquaintance in whose thread I’d defended Ben Carson ended up being the same person from whom I learned this news. My first reaction was, “What the fresh hell.” My second reaction was to—wait for it—defend Ben Carson:

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Ben Carson should never be allowed to make an impromptu speech. A competent administration would never have allowed him to ad lib without a teleprompter. Unfortunately, Ben Carson doesn’t serve in a competent administration. I’m arguing here that he’s a terrible extemporaneous speaker and quite possibly crazy, not a conniving racist.

Two days later, someone responded to my comment:

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Which led me to defend Ben Carson again: “With respect, Ben Carson is a nut, but he’s not Pol Pot.” And then, the cock crowed, for I had defended Ben Carson three times.

Here’s the Thing

These days, when there’s so much to be outraged about, I have to ration my dismay. My two outrage priorities are as follows:

  • The piece of garbage put forth as a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. This affects me personally because I’m self-employed and thus need to purchase an individual policy.
  • The fact that my president appears to have no grip on reality and we are all flying, out of control, in a plane with no pilot.

The fact that Ben Carson bumbled onto a stage, assumed a job for which he is not qualified, and spewed forth verbal diarrhea? That’s just an ordinary Monday in this shit show.

Plus, regarding this whole Ben Carson outrage machine, I want to say something about leftists in general: we are too eager to cannibalize our own. It’s making us ineffective in combating the budding autocracy.

Look at the recent election for DNC chair. Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who is about as progressive as they come and who has a track record of getting results, defeated Rep. Keith Ellison, who had been endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Rep. Ellison had some baggage from his youth (in my opinion forgivable, like Dr. Carson’s—what the hell! I did it again!). But it was baggage that he wasn’t articulate about defending, which made it questionable, in this political environment, whether or not he was the right person to bring wayward voters back to the Democratic Party.

Bernie Twitter erupted when Ellison lost, saying that they were leaving the Democratic Party for good, even though I’d wager Chairman Perez agrees with them 99 percent of the time. Since that day, I’ve been thinking about how this constant demand for ideological purity, outrage at every offense, and correcting the grammar of everyone who makes an argument contrary to what we believe could become the means by which we eviscerate our own cause.

Mathematically Speaking

At some point, the quest for ideological (and grammatical) purity becomes asymptotic. As the value of x approaches zero in this example, the value of increases dramatically. The line moves microscopically rightward infinitesimally, but it never reaches zero.

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At x = -3, it’s worth doing some work to move the line closer to zero. However, by the time you get to x = -1/4, the line is pretty close to zero, and it’s not going to get much closer without a lot of micromanagement. How much effort do we want to expend getting closer to zero when we’re already pretty darn close? How much good will, friendship, and national unity do we want to burn up to move millimeters closer to a target we’ll never hit?

Do You Want to Be Right, or Do You Want to Win People Over?

Plenty of non-racist, caring people, with varying levels of grammar and spelling mastery, agree with progressives about the ACA. They just don’t want to be drummed over the head, in their Facebook feeds, about the ongoing state of white privilege. Plenty of people have a “live and let live” view about transgender issues and bathroom usage. They just don’t want to be told they’re filled with hate for not wanting to learn eight new pronouns to accommodate people who need to specify in great detail where they see themselves on the gender identity spectrum.

In a perfect world, we’d all recognize where we fall on the privilege continuum and acknowledge that others face challenges we don’t. Heck, we’d all learn the pronouns in an ideal universe. But in 2017, do we want to be right, or do we want to win? Do we want to keep losing, forcing our neighbors who are members of minority groups to continue to fear for their safety? Or can we soften our communication strategy (not our values) and stop feasting on each other’s flesh, even if means we’re not perfectly pure?

Evil vs. Bumbling Fool

One of the best devices I’ve found for thinking about our current situation is Hanlon’s razor, paraphrased as such: never attribute actions to malice that can be just as easily explained by incompetence. Yes, Ben Carson said something unambiguously dumb, but I attribute it not to an evil intent to rewrite history, but to incoherence. Does it warrant top-flight outrage when we have much bigger concerns? Is our constant stream of outrage alienating voters who might otherwise vote to save the ACA, and perhaps, in a couple of years, democracy itself?

If we’re going into high gear at every perceived offense, we won’t be able to vote for a new president in four years. We’ll either be dead from a stress-related illness or too mentally ravaged to get to a polling station. Steve Bannon doesn’t have to forcefully deconstruct the administrative state. He’s watching it deconstruct itself, through the mental incompetence of the man he plotted to elect, the Heritage Foundation puppets he’s put on autopilot, and the infighting of two political parties powerless to seize control of this airship of state.

Expecting Ben Carson to say something sensible is like expecting a chicken to roller skate. Let him bumble into the oblivion of history. Leave Ben Carson alone.

I’ve now officially defended him five times in this blog post. FML. And if you find a video of a chicken roller skating on YouTube, or if you teach your chickens to roller skate just to prove that it can be done, leave your video in the comments.

Image courtesy of Marc Nozell from Flickr Creative Commons

You’re Probably Just Average, and That’s Okay.

My sons and I were eating dinner a few weeks ago, and my youngest son told me he’d gotten into an argument with his teacher and a few of his classmates. One of the kids had said nothing was impossible. Owen disagreed. The teacher confirmed what the other kid had said, but Owen insisted he wasn’t wrong.

My parental operating system knew this conversation could go one of two directions. Was it my job to convey empty inspiration or to confirm that some endeavors, indeed, are impossible?

I decided the best option was to tell the truth, so I told him he was right. I agreed that some things aren’t possible, and it’s our job to figure out the difference between what’s impossible because no one’s thought of a solution yet and what’s impossible because it’s never gonna happen.

For example:

  • Going to Mars: possible.
  • Going faster than the speed of light: highly unlikely.
  • Reducing entropy in an isolated system: impossible.
  • Losing ten pounds: well, maybe. Hey look! Someone brought donuts!

My son’s teacher meant to suggest nothing was impossible as a way of encouraging the kids to think big. His classmate was repeating sound bites she’d seen or heard from parents, grandparents, cartoon characters, ads, and posters.

The doctrine of potential exceptionality is everywhere. It’s in our art and throughout our religions. It flows by on Facebook memes, plastered in front of muted nature backgrounds. If you ask me, the expectation of exceptionalism is an extension of marketing propaganda and the doctrine of American superiority. It stokes consumerism and nationalism. And there’s not much truth to any of it.

Perspective

Very few humans throughout history qualify as “great.” Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Eleanor Roosevelt come to mind, just in terms of recent history. There are also those who fit the “Person in History You’d Have Dinner With” category, like Shakespeare, Jesus, or Buddha.

Of course, you can think of many other great people throughout history, especially outside the limitations of my Western perspective. Yet how many great people have actually emerged among the billions of Homo sapiens who’ve lived and died on Planet Earth? People who achieved true greatness, not people who tell themselves every year that this year, finally, is gonna be their year?

One thousand? Ten thousand? Let’s be optimistic and go with ten thousand.

Even if ten thousand humans have achieved true exceptionalism, that’s less than 0.0000001 percent of the estimated 107 billion humans who’ve floated along on Earth’s tectonic plates. I like my friends and family. I adore my children. But I probably don’t personally know anyone who will achieve true greatness in this life.

Neither do you.

I think every human is worthy and imbued with dignity and value. I also think it’s important to strive for excellence, both in morality and in carrying out one’s work. I’m just not sure it’s wise, useful, or honest to give ourselves daily and disingenuous pep talks about how amazing we are.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that the mental energy people expend trying to convince themselves of their own greatness could be better spent savoring moments — all moments, good, bad, and unremarkable — in the the temporary, typical, and unexceptional life that is pretty much all we have.

Toward an Honest Appraisal

Let’s face it: most of us lack the intellect, the emotional resilience, the ruthlessness, and the drive required to reach the top of humanity’s heap. Even things that aren’t impossible from a cosmic perspective are logistically impossible for most of us.

I hate to say it, but my kids probably aren’t destined for greatness. Neither am I, and neither are you. Like me, you probably do some things pretty well. You also do other things not so well.

You’re no notable sinner. You’re no venerable saint, either. I bet you’re decent to your fellow humans most of the time, though not to the point of ascetic self-denial or 100-percent lovingkindness. You let people in front of you in traffic sometimes, but when you’re in a hurry, well, that’s too bad for them.

Parents instill wisdom that astounds at times, but at other times, they yell at their kids like they’re unhinged. Teachers radiate inspiration in some moments before crushing little Johnny’s self-esteem five minutes later. Leaders have crowds cheering crazily on some days, but on other days, the sheeple grumble about how they could do it so much better. Most people don’t get that big lucky break from the universe. Most of us don’t have what it takes to achieve our most expansive dreams.

Sometimes, things are just impossible.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t expect nice things from life. You’ll see some great sunrises, sunsets, cloud formations, and auroras. You’ll laugh at good jokes, drink good wine, and eat great meals. You’ll see hallowed truths spoken, acted out, and written down.

Once in a while, you’ll nail that amazing lick you’ve been practicing for months. Your cool idea will be helpful to a dozen or so people. You’ll earn a bonus for crushing it at work, and your kids will so something that makes you feel like your heart will burst forth from your rib cage. Your partner will stop being repetitive and unexciting and make you remember why you decided to share a lifetime with them.

But are you a participant in a historically great love? Is your special destiny lurking around the next bend? Will you have that rock-hard bod without significant Photoshopping?

Probably “no” on all counts, but I encourage you to get comfortable with your averageness. In fact, I beseech you to embrace it, even to love it.

Let It Go

I absolve you from any obligation to be amazing, great, or eternally significant. Because you’re probably not, and that’s okay.

Go do some good. Change your mind when you learn something new. Love well when you have the chance. Accept love from other average, decent, caring people.

Reach for excellence, even if slightly above average is about the best you can do on a good day. Punch a clock. Throw a ball. Vote your conscience. Yell at an idiot.

History won’t remember that you did any of these things because they’re not exceptional on their own, but they do bring those fleeting moments of happiness that make drawing breath worthwhile.

Even if you aren’t exceptional in the expanse of human history, you’re exceptional to someone, and that’s enough. These achievements are good enough, my friend, and so are you — Average Joe or Joann that you are.

Women Are Entitled to All the Emotions. Men Are, Too.

This. This scrolled through my News Feed today.

Elizabeth Warren Angry

It wasn’t an intellectual criticism of Elizabeth Warren. It was a statement about her anger.

“The Angry Woman” or “The Angry Feminist” is a common pejorative stereotype. The Angry Woman is hysterical. She’s not keeping a cool head and, therefore, has no credibility.

This stereotype extends beyond gender. Complaints about racial inequality are made by “Angry Black Men.” Conservative voters are characterized as “Angry White Men.”

If we get the Anger label to stick, we discredit what the person has to say.

 

Angry Name Label

The biggest assumption about The Angry Woman is that she can’t handle her anger. She can’t express it and then channel it to effect productive, measurable change.

She doesn’t have permission to welcome the emotion for what it means to all men and women. Anger signals a dislike for something that’s happening to us.

A reasonable criticism of Elizabeth Warren is that she has one speech. She says the same thing on every talk show, in the same order. The government no longer works for the average American; it works for the corporation and the billionaire with an army of lobbyists and a big fat checkbook. She mentions the government profiting off student loans, another strong concern. Then, she cites the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a good and worthy agency, but a relatively minor player.

Because it’s small and frankly, dull, using the CFPB as an example of what needs to be done fizzles out her argument’s closing appeal. I think she should bring in other issues that matter to her and explain them to the American people—Glass-Steagall, for example. Or she should cite real-life examples of people helped by the CFPB, not just say, “We made a shiny agency.”

Do you see what I did there? I criticized a woman’s performance based on how she structured her argument.

I didn’t mention her emotional state…because it wasn’t relevant.

One for the Menfolk

An equally damaging stereotype on the male side of things is “The Cry Baby.” John Boehner is the best public example that enters my mind. 

 

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He’s a sentimental guy, and it seems having Pope Francis speak to Congress meant a lot to him. My guess is he wanted the pope’s message about caring for “the least of these”—as well as caring for our Earth—to resonate with colleagues who, in his mind, have lost sight of what it means to be godly.

Sadness, like anger, indicates we don’t like something that’s happening. It carries a tincture of grief without the fire of anger, but both tell us things aren’t going our way.

Feelings Are for Humans

My friends, both men and women get to have emotions—every single emotion. That’s because they come pre-packaged with our human software. Emotions are themselves an important kind of knowledge. They can be as useful as statistics, historical lessons, or quotes from a dead intellectual.

Women can feel passionately angry about something unfair without saying anything unreasonable. The presence of anger doesn’t invalidate the argument they’re making.

“Angry Black Man” and “Angry White Man” aren’t invalidated by their anger, either. In all cases, anger lets them—and us—know they don’t like something that’s happening either to them or to people for whom they care deeply.

Men can feel intense sadness and loss, and they’re welcome to biologically respond to that emotion by crying. Crying doesn’t invalidate them as men. It doesn’t automatically suggest a lack of maturity, leadership, or resolve.

It’s not feminine to cry. It’s not unfeminine to feel fury. All types of humans can be simultaneously angry and reasonable. They can also feel both sadness and steely determination.

Elizabeth Warren and John Boehner have little in common politically, but they’ve both been vilified for public displays of emotion. The presence of emotion doesn’t invalidate an argument.

The content of an argument invalidates an argument.

That goes for Angry Feminists, Angry Black Men, Angry White Men, and Cry Babies, too.

It even goes for people who look completely rational while they say irrational things.

 

September 11 plane concept

Enemies Real and False

I wore a brown linen dress and jacket to work on September 11, 2001. After finishing my work-study job at the University of Central Arkansas Office of World Languages (which mostly involved typing up purchase orders and running them back and forth) and going to my public administration class, I was driving to Little Rock to start my first day as an intern in Rep. Vic Snyder’s (D-Ark.) office.

It was a darkly funny time to become a congressional intern after the Monica Lewinsky and Chandra Levy scandals. I figured any congressman worth his salt wouldn’t even speak to interns at that point, but I still looked forward to the afternoon. Then, a French professor, a 60-ish, doughy woman with tufty old lady hair and glasses entered our office with the eyes of a scared animal. “They’re flying planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,” she told us before running back to hide in her office.

I didn’t believe her. This particular professor was always complaining or panicking about something or other, so I figured she’d misheard a news report and was just blathering on about it. I opened my computer browser to check MSNBC.com, just in case. When the website wouldn’t come up, I realized a lot of people must be checking it. Another professor, the one in charge of the TOEFL program who gave me so many purchase orders to type, turned on the small radio in her office and started listening to NPR. I couldn’t hear the radio well, but something was clearly going on.

An employee named Sharon came into the office and said she was trying to set up a TV in another room. She had really short hair and reeked of patchouli, and she was one of those people who think it’s important to prove their intelligence by always saying something depressing. She pushed a cart carrying one of those old, fat cathode ray TVs into the break room. It could barely pick up an antenna signal, but I could see through the black and white fuzz—and I could hear Dan Rather telling me—both towers of the World Trade Center were on fire.

I’d never been to New York, so I felt no emotional attachment to the Manhattan skyline. At that moment, it was another faraway disaster that had nothing to do with me. I called the congressman’s office and was greeted with a terse, “Don’t come in.” My crying and grim public administration professor said we were at Defcon 5 because she didn’t understand how the levels worked. The biggest takeway was that we didn’t have class, and a day with a packed schedule had become a day off.

All dressed up with nothing to do, I wandered over to the student center. I remember the smell and taste of a toasted bagel with butter, but I don’t remember ordering it. A group of students had gathered around a better television set, so I sat on the cold concrete floor and watched with them for a while. The image was better, but it was hard to hear. I decided to go home.

People do strange things when facing events out of the ordinary. When they hear about a snowstorm, they rush the grocery store for bread and milk. I lived in a mobile home park with my ex-husband (wow, does that sound white trashy!), and there was a gas station around the corner. Feeling tired of cable news, I walked to the gas station to see cars lined up to fill their tanks. Gas wouldn’t help when bombs rained down, but I realized logic didn’t matter. People needed something to do. They hated feeling helpless.

Everyone knows someone who lives in New York City. One of my college friends had just moved there to try to break into opera while working as a security guard. I thought about him and wondered whether he was okay, more out of wanting to feel connected to events than out of actual fear for his well-being. Around 11:00, my ex-husband called me. He was a music teacher at a local elementary school. We exchanged a few sentences, but we didn’t know what to say to one another. The story of our marriage.

I also wondered where President Bush was. According to news reports, they were flying him from place to place, even though all other air traffic had been grounded. In a day full of images, the one I remember most profoundly is the image of all of our senators and representatives gathered on the Capitol steps, singing “God Bless America.” It felt good—and regrettably odd—to see our leaders unified and being decent to one another.

Many people blame President Bush for ignoring intelligence reports suggesting an attack like 9/11 could happen. I never did. You can’t believe an attack is imminent when you don’t even think it’s possible. Once upon a time, an attack like that was unthinkable for all of us. It reminds me of what Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir faced before the Yom Kippur War. They’d had the Munich attacks; we’d had the U.S.S. Cole and the earlier World Trade Center bombing. We had vague intelligence that something might be coming; so did they. But someone’s always plotting against someone else, and it’s difficult to know which threats are credible and which aren’t.

America rarely faces hostility of this sort. After all, we bring wars to others; they usually don’t bring them to us. The truth is we’re a soft people who’ve rarely faced real danger at home. Fourteen years ago, President Bush spoke of the indomitable American spirit and its resolve. When I look around me, I see a country that has let the fear created by 9/11 rob us of the America we were.

Out of fear, we’ve traded intellect, reason, and openness for calls to arm ourselves, adherence to apocalyptic interpretations of faith, and fears that another attack lurks within every calendar square. Every tiny things, like a gay couple getting married, are leveraged by opportunists seeking power, billed as a threat to our way of life, and used for political or material gain. In countries like Israel, people actually face annihilation, every single day. They transform fear into innovation. We’ve let it turn us against one another.

September 11 made Americans a paranoid people and, from my perspective, the terrorists got exactly what they wanted. We’ve been in decline ever since that day. Our infrastructure crumbles. We have no resolve to tackle any problems, from helping children in poverty to providing healthcare for all Americans to developing an economy for the future. It’s everyone for themselves in America today, where your enemy is the single mother, the minority, the non-religious person, the man in a dress. I think when everyone is our enemy, we assume no attack can surprise us. We never have to feel helpless again.

Americans love tough talk and chest-pounding bravado. We like a good American hero, whether it’s John McClane of “Die Hard” or the real heroes of 9/11: our first responders in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania; our active military and veterans, who fearlessly faced danger on our behalf; the people of United 93 who quite possibly prevented a passenger jet from hitting the White House; the child who for the last 14 years quietly and resolutely grew up without a mother or father.

September 11 didn’t demand real courage from most of us, but it certainly made us afraid. Instead of needlessly pumping gas and buying Funyuns, we’re filling our minds with paranoia and false outrage. I don’t know anyone who died on September 11, but I challenge myself to honor their lives by facing down real enemies, not imaginary ones. My enemies are not my dark-skinned neighbors, self-aggrandizing county clerks, homophone-challenged spewers of bile, Vaudevillian presidential candidates, or abstract regimes overseas. My enemies are complacency and inaction, slacktivism disguised as courage, and complaining about how no one else does anything useful instead of being useful to others myself.

Donald Trump might become president, an ayatollah might aim a nuke at us, and Kim Davis might get richer than any televangelist—so what? I choose not to let events I’m powerless to control rob me of the mind power to do something worthwhile. Because when I do, the terrorists win—the real terrorists, not imaginary enemies. And we can’t let them win, my fellow Americans. We’ve given them too much already.

Parts of Speech


Parts of SpeechFacebook is such a wonderful laboratory for human interaction. We share photos, misspelled memes and inane cat videos, but we also share a lot of our opinions in a fairly low-risk environment. I’ve been “unfriended” before, mostly because of differences over religion. I’d like
to pretend that I didn’t care, but I did. It hurt. However, I figure that anyone who would “unfriend” me at the touch of a button probably never actually “friended” me in the real world.

Most people, in my experience, have similar goals. We want a better world, and we expect our fellow Earthlings to contribute to making a better world right alongside us. If we have kids, then we worry about the world that we’re leaving to them. We’re afraid of what we can’t control. We want to be remembered as good and decent people who, by our presence, improved the lives of others. We may differ on how best to reach these ends, but we ultimately want the same things.

In 1993, I spent my summer in Rochester, New York, at the Eastman School of Music. I remember a professor telling the story of a fellow musician who used to ask questions like, “Are you an oboe? Are you a flute?” In her wisdom, she explained that it was fine to identify yourself as being devoted to an instrument, but it was better to identify as a whole person. In other words, you’re an oboe player, not an oboe. You need a well-rounded sense of self.

I decided this week to stop using certain words as nouns and to start using them as adjectives. Two of those words are “liberal” and “conservative.” I can say either that someone is a liberal, or I can say someone is a liberal person or a person with liberal views. I’ve decided that I prefer the latter ways because in those phrasings, I’m acknowledging the existence of a person. When our adversaries stop being people to us, we become too comfortable dehumanizing those who disagree with us. For example, if you call yourself “believer” and identify your friend as “unbeliever,” then you may decide that “unfriending” the unbeliever is a stance for your principles. It’s not seen for what it is: a small, mean gesture revealing the closed nature of your own mind and heart.

When I look at my news feed and even my paper address book, I see a roster of people who have many opinions that are different from mine. Sometimes, I argue with them, either from a defensive posture or because I’m jones-ing for a sparring match, but there isn’t a name on my friends list or in my address book that I would choose to eliminate. When friends need me or when we’re laughing together, political and religious disagreements melt away. I’ll cancel out their votes at the ballot machine as often as I can, but I won’t cancel our friendship.

If you’re my friend, post your pro-Koch brothers editorials. Post your pro-NRA memes. Fill my news feed with Dave Ramsey quotes. Feel free to post about the hope that you find from your faith. You may almost make my unbelieving feminist pinkie commie head explode, but as long as my liberal skull stays intact, then you and I will always be friends.

I’m going to continue reflecting on which nouns I can transition to adjectives in my own conversation. A person isn’t a liberal or a conservative any more than he’s an oboe.

 

#FirstWorldProblems

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I remember having existential problems once; or, as they’re hashtagged on Twitter, “#FirstWorldProblems”—finding my purpose in life, learning to believe in myself, and the other kinds of struggles that can be Photoshopped on top of a nature image and posted on Facebook. Now that I’ve offended every inspirational-quote-nature-photo-meme-poster (sorry!), I’d like to clarify that I think Maslow’s hierarchy is spot-on. We worry about esteem and self-actualization not because we’re selfish and morally corrupt but because the other components of the pyramid are stable beneath our feet.

Most likely, if you’re anything like me, you’ve never been really poor. My mother always said we were poor, but of course, we weren’t. We didn’t spend extravagantly, and my mother was always employed. I’m sure that the ice was thin after she divorced my father, but she never let me know the whole truth. We lived the typical middle-class existence consisting of a house payment, a car payment and stopping on the way home to pick up pretty much anything we wanted. Big requests like a new computer or an expensive musical instrument appeared eventually and without much fanfare.

When my mother was alive, she pushed me to choose a career that would make me financially solvent. The equation was spelled out for me: College degree + proven industry = lifelong security. Of course, my top career choices were to be either musician or a writer, and the 18-year-old me thought she was a Philistine for suggesting a practical career. However, I didn’t have the guts to completely cross her, so I got a degree in music…education. I graduated from college at 21, and I was not emotionally mature enough for public education. I lasted two-and-a-half years before I started having a big “what do I want to do with my life” existential crisis. During those years, I married someone who seemed like the sort of man you could count on; the responsible, agreeable sort.

The “who am I” existential crisis always hummed at a low frequency, even though I played the role of suburban conformity. I started working everyone knows where at a job that I didn’t love but that offered steady pay. I had two sons and purchased a home in a nondescript neighborhood where I lived out Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” until I couldn’t take it anymore. I quit my job, with the encouragement of my always-agreeable husband who was doing a superb job of appearing to be happy, started working as a freelance writer and began my master’s degree. We bought a reasonably priced used car. Then, the agreeable (and apparently unhappy) husband was gone. Poof. Yep. Just like that.

When you start a life of self-employment, you should either start gradually or start when you’re sitting on a big fat pile of savings. I didn’t. Things got paid for with credit cards with the belief that everything would turn around and I’d have no problem paying it back. As soon as my husband left, I called a credit counselor. I called my mortgage company and tried to work with them. I looked for new clients and found some, and I no longer concerned myself with whether they were rude or whether the jobs were what I wanted—as long as they paid the bills. I sent out resumes for more predicable work, even though nothing came of my search. I stopped asking the existential questions and started asking, “How can I keep food on the table and a roof over my kids’ heads?”

My husband decided to find himself outside of our marriage, and he took his health insurance with him. I had to make some hard choices: Pay the mortgage, or pay for pre-K? I chose to pay for pre-K both to give my youngest son the best possible start—the kind of start that every kid deserves, rich or poor—and to ensure that I could keep working so that we could eat. My ex-husband pays his support payments faithfully, but his income and mine aren’t enough to maintain two homesteads. I do shell out the occasional $10 so that my son can have a book from his school’s book fair and not feel terrified that we have nothing. Saving $10 per month isn’t going to pay my mortgage, but it’s enough to beat back the bony hand of scarcity when it reaches for my kids.

The “we’re too poor” nonsense of my childhood has turned into bouts of sheer panic. Most hours of the day, I feel optimistic. My bank balance is growing, and child care payments are about to end. However, I have no resources for the unexpected. Such as visiting the ER this week (complete with ambulance ride and ultrasound) and discovering that because of an Access Health CT glitch, I may have made that visit without health insurance. For now, we live paycheck-to-paycheck in that lower middle class void between public assistance and a savings account.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m extending myself around my sons like a shield, trying to block out reality for as long as I can. And no, Phyllis Schlafly, the Man Brigade isn’t coming, and frankly, I don’t blame them. What man in his right mind would open a joint bank account with me at this point? If one offered, I wouldn’t marry him. I’d question his sanity. If I could talk to my mother–the woman, not the mom–I’d tell her that now I understand why she never wanted me to depend on any man for money, even if that man, by all appearances, should seem both responsible and agreeable.

Not all, but some of the people in our society that judge the poor harshly also brandish the Bible like a blunt instrument while they wail about “personal responsibility.” I suppose that Job could have saved more for a rainy day, or he could have told his sons and daughters that they couldn’t go to that party (you know, the one where the house collapsed on them and they all died because God felt like their dad needed a stress test). Or perhaps the real lesson of Job is, “Shit happens. Who are you to judge?”

Like Job, I made the middle class, everyday choices (okay, Job was rich—this is literary license) that seemed okay at the time. Then, shit happened. I’ll work my way out of it, and I’ll respect myself a lot once I have. The panic will lessen, the gaps in Maslow’s hierarchy will fill up and my brain, with nothing real to worry about, might drift back to those existential problems. For now, they seem really stupid and shallow, like all of the judgments I used to make about poor people.

And when I look back over these years, I think I’ll see that the path to real self-actualization began when I stopped trying to talk myself into having self-esteem and started giving myself a reason to have it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keep Showing Up

parenting

Photo courtesy of soupstock from BigStockPhotos.com

I just finished the second of two parenting classes that I’m required to take as a Connecticut divorcee. Although I’m generally a big government, tree-hugging liberal, I felt cross about the idea of having the State of Connecticut tell me how to parent. Did I mention that we divorcees have to pay $125 for these classes, whether or not we are initiating the divorce? Needless to say, I didn’t enter the classes with a particularly positive attitude.

Because the psychologist wasn’t in control of the room, the conversation devolved into bitching about ex-spouses. The bitching was couched in the forms of questions about children’s welfare. You know, like when you really want to dish a juicy secret about someone, so you tell other people in the form of a prayer request? For instance, “Lucy’s at the clinic with chlamydia because Claude cheated on her and didn’t use protection. She could really use your prayers”? (Come on, you know you’ve been there). The man who asked, “How do I tell my 5-year-old that his mom’s in jail?” didn’t want to know how to help the child. He wanted the class to know that his ex-wife was a deadbeat. That was the gist of the evening.

Let me start back at the beginning of the circle. The first man said that his son lived with his ex-wife in New Jersey. However, the son didn’t feel like talking to him, so he hadn’t spoken to his son in a couple of years. So my inner parenting coach said, “Your son is a minor. He doesn’t know what he wants. You’re the dad. Get in the car and go visit.”

Next.

“I don’t know what to do when my 14-year-old son says ‘f*ck you’ to me.” Inner parenting coach: Mother gives life, and mother takes life away. You give your son everything he has. If he talks to you that way, then you start removing the possessions for which you paid. Starting with the cell phone that you say he uses all night in lieu of sleeping.

Next!

A gentleman who had six kids said that one of his sons was suicidal. He and his wife had been called to the school because his son had carved his own arm with a pencil until it bled. The man wasn’t disturbed about the suicidal part—or at least he didn’t seem to be—but he was disturbed that his wife kept checking her cell phone during the meeting and complaining that her boyfriend hadn’t called.

The psychologist did make a useful comment. He told the man that it was time to “circle the wagons” because he had a serious situation on his hands. The father kept going back to the mom and the cell phone. My inner parenting coach had no time for this one: You slap the cell phone out of her hand, pick it up, throw it across the room and tell her to shut up and pay attention.

Maybe this is why I wasn’t cut out for a helping profession.

“I paid for a trip to Disney before my wife left and now she says I can’t go out of state unless she goes with me.” Moving on. You’re just annoying me. Or try this, my room full of fellow parents: Open your mouths and speak.

New Jersey Guy: Tell your son that even though he doesn’t want to see you, you want to see him. Tell him that you’ll park your car outside of his home every Saturday morning for two hours. If he wants to talk, you’ll be there. Then, show up.

F-you Lady: Tell your son that you don’t care how disrespectful his father is to women. You are going to fight with every ounce of your strength to see that he doesn’t grow up to treat women the way that his father does. Then, stand your ground.

Six Kids Man: Let your useless wife walk out of the conference room with her cell phone. Then, lock the door behind her. Tell the teachers you’re so sorry that you reproduced with a loser, but you’re ready to take responsibility and to throw every mental, physical, emotional and financial resource into trying to help your son. Then, keep your word. You can’t protect him at every moment, but you can let him know that you’re in the fight.

Disneyland Dad: Tell your ex-wife that you will indeed go to Disney, and that if she doesn’t like your decision, then she can come along after reimbursing you for half of the trip. You may also need to open your mouth and speak to the judge about your current state-endorsed Parenting Plan.

I went home to a preschool-aged son who told me he hated me and wanted to live with his dad. He’s been doing this for 16 months, and I’m really getting tired. My own advice rang in my head alongside my desire to pack his little suitcase and ship him off: “He’s a minor. He doesn’t know what he wants. Take away the possessions for which you paid. Throw every resource into trying to help your son.”

Parenting can be thankless, and divorce can be hell. I’m sure the other parents in that class, the ones I was very quick to judge, wondered why I didn’t have a clue about how to defeat my four-year-old nemesis. In the end, I hope we’ll all do what good parents do. We’ll keep showing up, whether or not we have any idea what to do.