How to Disagree With People On the Internet and Still Respect Yourself In the Morning

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How many times has this happened to you -- you stumble upon some internet brouhaha where people are saying folks voted for Trump because of economic anxiety (nope) or how antifas are just as bad as the Nazis they are fighting against (NOPE), and you wade on in, armed with facts and links and your mighty, towering intellect, determined to set these sadly misinformed people straight.

Ten hours later, you emerge from battle with an even lower opinion of humankind than you had when you started, thinking, Well FUCK, I have a pretty low opinion of humankind already, so how is that even possible? 

Some folks set boundaries for themselves on how they engage -- they just don't take part in political discussions, or maybe they don't take part in discussions with people they don't know personally -- and I think this is wise. I have experimented with such rules for myself, and sometimes they've really helped me. Like, in the weeks following the election, I gave myself permission to not fight about politics online, because I was too raw and got into a whipped-up headspace way too quickly, and it wasn't good for my mental health.

But, for me anyway, I do believe there is some value in participating in online discussions about tough stuff. I have learned so much from many internet friends over the years, through talking with them about tricky issues. And those conversations weren't always easy or pleasant, but I appreciated them, because when other people call out my blind spots, I get a chance to LEARN and GROW and both of those are very important to me. (On Season One Episode 12 of my podcast, I discuss an instance where a friend called me in on some careless thoughts I shared if you're interested.) 

I think there's also value in calling out blind spots where I see them, especially around race and gender and weight and all the various ways in which folks exclude the interests of other folks who are not like them. It's not that I expect to change anyone's mind by arguing with them -- it's more about the bystanders. Like, if I'm standing up against sexism, other women following the thread may appreciate it. Or if I'm calling out racist language, some folks on the thread might learn from what I'm saying, or I might learn from what they are saying.

So, yeah, I'm not gonna stop discussing hard topics on the internet any time soon. But, as a fiery and unapologetic feminist, I have to admit that sometimes I get into a zone where all the good reasons I outlined above are not what's motivating me at all. What's motivating me is the desire to slam some condescending dude's dick in a car door for public amusement. 

And sure, that's fun sometimes ... but it's not really my goal in life. I don't really want to make all the men suffer (usually). I mostly want to help people SEE, and to be helped in turn to see my own blind spots. And when I get into fighty/flighty/lighting things on fire mode, well, not much of that happens.

So, how do I stay focused on my goal of education/being educated rather than retribution for condescension? I've come up with some strategies that help and maybe they will help you, too.

1)  Discuss, but don't fight.

This is my cardinal rule. When my heart starts pounding and I feel myself being more invested in sick burns than the actual topic at hand, I step away (or at least I try to -- progress, not perfection). If someone calls black folks fighting for their rights "thugs," I will call it out. I call out false equivalency where I see it. I definitely call for more subtle expressions of thought beyond "Repubicans and Democrats are both bad!"  

But if the other person come back at me with a wall of text about why thugs is not a racist term, or how liberals just want to be offended by everything, or how if we aren't tolerant and nice to Nazis then we are just as bad as they are, yadda yadda yadda, I disengage. 

2) Offer information respectfully, then disengage. 

If someone talks shit about how awful it is that some black folks are calling for reparations, assume that they just don't know any better and leave them a link to Ta-Nehisi Coates's brilliant work on the topic. If someone talks about how obese people are bleeding our healthcare system dry, offer them an alternate view and encourage them to read it. So many people pop off about shit they don't understand at all (including me!) -- if you have a wider perspective or more experience on the topic, share it! Then go back to #1. 

3) Consider a two-response rule. 

As discussed here, the first response is to make your point and the second response is to clarify any misunderstandings. If nothing productive is happening in the discussion at this point, it's not going to magically get awesome. After two responses, generally I have said my piece. I have stood up for the people I believe I need to stand up for. That's enough. 

4) Pay attention to how you feel in your body. 

If my shoulders start hunching up ... if I start feeling anxious ... if I start to feel addicted to checking a thread for responses ... it's time to walk away. There will be more jerkburgers to fight with tomorrow! Which leads me to my next rule ...

5) Remember that you can't hug every cat.

Do you remember this silly video from a few years ago, where a woman cries about how there are so many cats in the world that she can't hug and someone made it into a song? I know it was a joke ... but the phrase pops into my mind quite often when I get in that headspace where it feels like everyone I speak with is in denial about unconscious bias.

Because, you know, most people in general are in denial about unconscious bias. And if I speak up every time I see someone with this particular blind spot, I will have literally no time to do anything else. Ever. So, I hug some of the cats that come across my path, and let the others go. And I try to address these blind spots I see in other, less personalized ways, like in my writing, as opposed to cat-by-cat on Facebook. 

6) Trolls get memes, or nothing at all. 

Trolls are not worth fighting with, because half the time they are bots anyway. You can spot trolls easily by looking for terms like "snowflake," "liberal elites," "love it or leave it," etc. These folks will not be convinced by your eloquence, so just drop a meme on them and get on with your life. I mean, unless you are PMSing really hard and feel like stomping them. Moderation in all things, my loves! 

7) Delete, ignore, and block liberally and with glee.

In some of my online hangouts there are some seriously wack dudes -- red-pill-taking, total misogynist dickwads. Some people try to make them see sense, and I bless them on their journey, but that gets a big old nope from me. I feel quite happy to use the features that technology gives me to remove these vile expressions from my life. 

What are your personal guidelines for engagement online? Have you ever gotten anywhere interesting in an internet debate? Do let me know in the comments. 

Basic Shit I Should Know By Now: Get Off the Internet Every Now and Then

This is my new series on some really basic shit that I should know by now, and yet somehow I still need to be reminded of. Maybe you do, too? 

Recently, I’ve been a little down-hearted -- and I know I’m not the only one. The world gets more and more bananas every day, and though I’ve been feeling like this off and on since last November, the last few weeks, it’s been mostly on.

Many times per day, I set myself some task or other, and then moments later somehow find myself lying prone on my couch scrolling through the day’s atrocities on my phone, feeling lost and tired and afraid.

Like most people, I’ve had a moderate internet addiction for years, but recent events have definitely made it worse. I keep thinking I’m going to miss something big, important, or extra ridiculously dumb, because big, important, extra ridiculously dumb stuff seems to happen in abundance every damn day.

It’s not like I’m a recluse drooling on the keyboard all day -- I mean, I have a husband, a job, friends, places to go and shit to do. But I’m definitely on the internet more than what feels healthy. It feels like this low level thrum of fuckedness rumbling through my gut all the time now. Somehow, checking my phone turns it down for a minute, but also makes it much worse in the long term.

The addiction has recently ramped up to the point where I often pick up my phone and start cycling through my favorite apps and online places without even realizing it, mesmerized and unfocused, my consciousness dissolved into the device in my hand.

But to be constantly neck-deep in this river of fucked-up news makes me feel physically ill. The world in the phone is such a shitshow, and we need to keep our eyes on it for sure, and stay involved and engaged … it doesn’t have to be every moment of every day, though, does it? I mean, it can’t be every moment of every day. It just ... can't.

So last Sunday when I woke up and found myself scrolling and feeling gross before I’d even made it out of bed, I realized I needed to switch this habit up, and I made a decision -- I was going to stay off the internet all day long. No Facebook, no Instagram, no podcasts, no videos -- just me and some books and paints and stuff to do around the house.

And, oh, it was marvelous! I did so many chores! I washed dishes, scrubbed the range, swept up all the nasty crumbs that gather under the kitchen cabinets, took down some rather impressive spider webs, and vacuumed AND steam cleaned the carpet.

Then I read a book -- a paper book! -- and painted a girl and hung out with my husband and drank tea in the backyard and sang my favorite parts of Moana while I worked. And I wrote for a while with a turquoise fountain pen in a journal with fantastic paper, and I stared at the trees and let some lovely ideas slowly unfurl in me.

By the end of this day of doing only 3D activities in the 3D world, I was surprised to notice that I felt brand new. My mind unclenched and lost itself in the moment, watching ants marching around the patio and birds zipping through the sky. My brain felt like it'd had a nice glass of wine in the bath, followed by a relaxing nap on clean sheets.

Do you also feel like maybe you’ve been plugged in too long and too hard? Like it’s time to disconnect from the Borgian reality that is the internet for a minute? Like your brain could use a bath and a nap, too? If any part of you is saying “Yes,” then you should take a day off! It’s easier and more luxurious than you think. Here’s how:

  1. Put your devices elsewhere. If my phone is sitting next to me, I know that I will definitely pick it up and start dicking around before I even realize what I’m doing. To break that habit was so simple though -- I just put my phone and my iPad away in my bedside table where I couldn’t unconsciously pick them up. So easy.

  2. If you have a random question you feel the urge to look up, write it down. Since the advent of the internet, my tolerance for sitting with an unanswered question has gone way down, but it’s not like I actually NEED TO KNOW the name of the actor who played Walder Frey and Argus Filch RIGHT NOW. So I jotted these random questions down to look up later. Interesting fact: by the next day I had lost interest in them.

  3. Make a list of activities that sound fun or productive to you. Go for a bike ride, clean your closet, visit your mom, hit up the library, work in the garden, day drink and write poetry, go to the shelter and play with homeless dogs -- whatever you want.

  4. Do the stuff on your list all day long. When you are done with one item, move on to another. Go ahead -- live a little!

  5. Go to bed without checking your phone. Congratulations -- you did it! You successfully remembered what it was like to be alive before 2007! Go you!

Is it ridiculous that something as simple as getting the hell off the internet requires tips? Sure it is. And maybe you don’t need help with this particular issue. Maybe you already have extremely healthy boundaries with your phone -- if so, mazel tov.

But if you are a craven half-cyborg like me who finds yourself melting into your device more often than you would like, and it makes you feel shitty, then maybe give the day-long fast a try. My guess is that you will feel more like a real human person by the end of the day.

What's Happening?

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A month or so ago, my website was hacked and I lost a year's worth of posts :( so allow me to recap. Last summer my husband and I got rid of a great many of our belongings and hit the road. We spent about six months rambling around the country, from Portland to NYC, and finally decided to settle down in Boulder, Colorado. Here's why:

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It's incredibly beautiful here, and quiet, and the winter has a sunshine/snow ratio of about 90/10. We lucked into a super cute house one block from the bottom of a mountain, and we now have a couch and a bed and dining table again. Still no chairs for the table, but that will come soon enough ... and we do have this guy:

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Working from home, taking lots of walks, drinking lots of tea -- it's a nice life. I'm working on the whole making friends thing, and painting, and writing. Yes, friends, I got myself a writing coach, and he is great, and my second book is rolling in a direction that Goddess willing will eventually lead to it being done. Very exciting.

It feels a little bit like we've dropped off the edge of the world, and I rather like it.

More adventures loom in the next few months -- San Miguel de Allende, Amsterdam (or Amsterdang, as Jolene and I call it), Dusseldorf, London, Scotland, and New York City. Stay tuned for pictures and maybe even fabulous insights? We'll see. I can guarantee pictures at least.

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The Best Time I Basically Believed In A Fictional Religion

Have you ever been reading a sci-fi book, and one of the characters creates a new religion, and it’s so close to what you think about life/the universe/our place in it that you are basically ready to sign up for this fictional religion by the time you’re done reading the book?

No? Just me?

It is an odd sensation, to see your worldview precisely spelled out in the pages of a novel about a dystopian near-future, but that’s exactly what happened to me when I read Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. (I can't get enough of her — read my thoughts on Kindred here.)

In the Parable books, our protagonist is Lauren Olamina, a teenage girl who has seen some major shit and creates a new religion called Earthseed in response ... though she would say she discovered rather than created it.

Earthseed’s major tenet is this: Change is the most powerful force in the universe, and we are both subjects of and participants in it.

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God Is Change.

In the Earthseed worldview, God is not a person or a person-type entity who cares about your thoughts or whether your favorite football team is winning this season. God is nothing but Change itself, inevitable and impersonal and beautiful and devastating.

It’s a clear-eyed and some might say cold perspective, but to me, it’s perfect, because first off, it seems more accurate than believing there is an entity in the sky listening to my thoughts and/or caring about my football team.

Secondly, it underscores the fact that we do not need and in fact must not rely upon divine intervention to make a better world for ourselves and for each other.

God is not our supernatural mother or father. God is Change, and its job isn’t to take care of us. That task falls squarely on our own shoulders. We need to take care of each other.

God is Change,

And in the end,

God prevails.

But meanwhile…

Kindness eases Change.

Love quiets fear.

And a sweet and powerful

Positive obsession

Blunts pain,

Diverts rage,

And engages each of us

In the greatest,

The most intense

Of our chosen struggles

That positive obsession she mentions is the destiny of Earthseed as she sees it — to spread itself throughout the universe, to take root among the stars. This mission, this large and audacious project is meant to give humanity a goal, yes, but it's also designed to get humans to organize our thoughts about each other at a higher level. To see each other not as rivals, but as family. To be Earthseed, before we are men or women or rich or poor or American or Korean or South African or anything else.

The Destiny of Earthseed

Is to take root among the stars.

It is to live and to thrive

On new earths.

It is to become new beings

And to consider new questions.

It is to leap into the heavens

Again and again.

It is to explore the vastness

Of heaven.

It is to explore the vastness

Of ourselves.

To my delight, Butler goes all the way with this — Olamina writes her verses and shares them with others running from the fires of the future. With her verses and with her own personal strength, she gathers a community around her to practice Earthseed. They welcome newcomers, focus on education, and make carefully considered but bold moves to shape chaos to their benefit. They become a formidable and capable group of people, practiced in the art of adapting to new situations quickly, learning as much as possible, and putting themselves in the strongest position they can.

In one particularly painful part of the second book, we get a chance to see how Earthseed functions when the shit hits the fan and the community falls on the hardest times imaginable. Even when everything falls apart, their beliefs galvanize them. They remain focused on surviving, on learning, on keeping their eyes open for opportunities to influence what happens, instead of just being the ones it happens to.

Any Change may bear seeds of benefit.

Seek them out.

Any Change may bear seeds of harm.

Beware.

God is infinitely malleable.

God is Change.

The ending of the book is extremely satisfying to me, but I know from reading interviews with Butler that there were meant to be lots of Parable books. We were meant to follow Earthseed as it spread around the universe, as it shaped and was shaped by many other worlds, but Butler died before she cracked the nut of how to tell the rest of those stories. Such a shame … maybe someone will pick it up and run with it in the future.

When I say I’m ready to sign up for Earthseed, I guess my tongue is in my cheek a little … probably because I’m the only one who would be signed up, and I’m not like Olamina. I'm not ready to devote my life to spreading the ideas of Earthseed.

But to me? Everything Butler/Olamina came up with is fucking sound. And I get a deep charge when I think about change in this way — inevitable, unstoppable, but malleable, too. It makes me remember that to dig my heels in against change is a fruitless effort. It reminds me that I can work with it instead, I can shape it, I can play an active part in creating what happens around me. As Olamina puts it,

We do not worship God.

We perceive and attend God.

We learn from God.

With forethought and work,

We shape God.

In the end, we yield to God.

We adapt and endure,

For we are Earthseed

And God is Change.

To me, this seems just about right, even if we don’t get the G-word involved in it. Change is happening all the time, all around us, and even when we feel like we are its victims, in truth we are always, always participants as well. Best to recognize that and run with it.

photo by Gianluca Mastrascusa // cc

Do You Believe In Magic?

One Sunday morning when I was 7 or 8, I got up early. Everyone else was asleep, so I grabbed some Corn Chex and turned on the TV. There was this guy in glasses and a brown suit, talking fervently about how God always answers our prayers. You only need to believe hard enough and open your heart to Jesus Christ and accept him as your lord and savior and all manner of miraculous things would be possible, he said, and he was really into it, sweating and crying into the microphone. God can and will do anything for you if you only submit yourself to Him. I was pretty little at this point, so I took him quite literally. And primed as I was by bibbity-bobbity-boo and cartoon talking dogs and stuff like that, I guess this premise sounded reasonable to me. At least, I decided to try it out.

So when I finished my Chex, I crawled into the hall closet, shut the door, closed my eyes. Then I prayed. I submit to you, Lord Jesus. I open my heart to you and ask you only this one thing — I want to be beautiful. Blonde, blue-eyed, and thin. When I come out of this closet, I want everything to be different.

I must've been in there an hour, concentrating so hard that I vibrated with the effort. And ... maybe I was also stalling a little, because I was scared that it wasn't going to work, that I'd come out and look in the mirror and be exactly the same as before.

Which, of course, is precisely what happened. And an acid-green vein of cynicism started to grow across my heart that day, because I began to realize that magic — at least the kind of magic I'd seen in movies and read about in books — didn't exist.

I had to learn the lesson a few more times. I had to fantasize really hard about several pretend boyfriends before it sank in that fantasizing about someone is not an effective way of making them love you. I had to daydream about being discovered as a great singer/wit, and go broke while waiting, before it sank in that I needed to get a damn job.

It wasn't until I was around thirty, I guess, when it occurred to me that expecting someone to discover me and make me a star was not actually a viable life plan.

In fact, waiting around for anything to happen ever is basically the same thing I did after watching Jimmy Swaggart that morning thirty-some years ago. It's wishful thinking. It's future-tripping. It's believing in the wrong kind of magic.

Because, you see, magic is absolutely real. But it doesn't work the way we think. It's not something that — bam! — just happens to you.

It's more like ... something that rallies around you when you focus your effort and love on something, whether it be a painting or a child or a software project. Sometimes you point yourself in the direction you want to go, and you start paddling, and then the wind comes up behind you and fills your sails. That is what magic is.

I’m pretty sure it’s not supernatural — it’s just how nature works. And it rarely comes down like a lightning bolt from the sky. Usually, magic requires that we participate in it. That we take the first step, pay attention, ready our sails to catch the wind as it rises. It requires that we know how to sail. It requires effort and skill. It’s not given so much as earned.

Real magic is even more subtle and lovely and fantastic than what we were taught. It comes out of our very own fingers and brains and hearts when we engage, when we work to learn and understand and shape the forces at play in our lives, even as they shape us.

photo by Billy I // cc

Who Gets To Decide Who You Are?

Lately I have fallen into Octavia E. Butler’s dimension, and it is a mind-exploding place to be. Her novel Kindred is about a young black woman named Dana who mysteriously disappears from her own world — 1976 Los Angeles — and finds herself in Antebellum Maryland.

After this happens a few times, she figures out that she goes back every time a white boy named Rufus lands in a life-threatening situation. She also figures out that Rufus is her ancestor, so she needs to keep him alive until he’s fathered the child that will keep the chain going from him down to her.

Told from Dana’s perspective, the book is vivid and haunting and terrifying and even funny, full of descriptions that bring the reader directly into her experience and her thoughts about that experience. We see how her modern ideals conflict with the reality of her 1800s situation, and we see how that conflict wears her down over time.

And here’s what the conflict boils down to — who gets to say who she is?

In 1976, Dana gets to say who she is, at least to a certain extent — she’s strong, intelligent, capable, a young writer free to think or say or do whatever she likes.

But in 1818, her ideas about who she is are overwhelmed by everyone else’s ideas of who she is. Everyone else sees her blackness and thinks “slave.” They see her femaleness, too, and they think “for my use.”

It doesn’t matter that there are no papers showing that she has ever been bought or sold. It doesn’t matter what she says, it doesn’t matter that she knows about Black Power, and it doesn’t matter that she’s wearing pants. She is a black woman, so she must be a slave. There’s no room in their minds for her to be anything else.

Not having been raised to see herself as a slave, sometimes she forgets. She looks at white people too directly, challenges men too easily. But over time, after repeated beatings and humiliations, the conflict wears her down. As the book progresses, she finds it harder and harder to internally resist sliding into the subservient role. In the overwhelming pressure of what the world thinks she is, she struggles to hold on to her idea of who she thinks she is.

This, to me, is the most exquisite and painful part of the story, because it shows exactly how oppression twists the souls of those who suffer it.

***

I say this not from some intellectual position outside of this phenomenon. Though clearly I have never experienced anything like those who suffered through slavery, my soul has been twisted, too. To hate my imperfect body, to believe in the impossibility that I will ever truly be okay, even to allow others to take brutal advantage of me simply because one shouldn’t raise a fuss.

But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that I am in possession of more physical, cultural, and emotional freedom than any of my ancestors ever had. I have been shaped by my culture, there’s no denying it — but I also have many opportunities to shape my culture back. I have the ability to examine and reject the criteria my culture has set for success. I have the freedom to make myself better.

And these two opposing forces are at play in and around all of us. Cultural pressure to conform presses from the outside, and the soul’s inherent desire for freedom strains from the inside. The inertia of the past presses up against the call of the future, like tectonic plates shifting, and the interplay between these two is called history.

But it moves slowly, because the gravity of the past is IMMENSE. The most fucked up ideas of the past have been blunted a bit, for sure — we don’t have slavery anymore, we don’t have women being owned by their fathers or husbands. But we don’t have to look far to see those old ideas still in action today: the racist brutality in Ferguson and all over the country … the casual attitude toward rape and domestic violence … the notion that wealth means you are a good person and poverty means you’re a bad lazy one who deserves no help.

Culture if not law is still trying to dictate who each of us is. And to be limited like this, to be categorized like objects, to be denied the most basic human right of deciding for oneself who you are —  it’s a soul-level injury. And it creates a fundamental conflict between individuals and the society they live in.

Personally? There’s nothing that pisses me off more. When black people are repeatedly beaten and imprisoned and murdered by the state, when women’s access to healthcare is systematically removed piece by piece, when the powerful willfully refuse to acknowledge the experiences of the powerless, my response is 100% incandescent rage.  Who do these assholes think they ARE? And how do they get away with it, even for a minute, when there are so many more of us than there are of them?

This is one of the brilliant things about Kindred — it explains that mystery. We can even watch as it happens to Dana, page by page. If you stick around in a culture that wants to limit you for long enough, that shit is going to seep into your brain, too. 

***

And that’s where we are now. A lot of the heinous, racist, sexist awfulness our culture was built upon has seeped into our brains. It still dictates some portion of our internal monologue and our external behavior. It still governs a lot of how we see ourselves, and how we see each other.

But the tectonic plates are sliding, and I believe we are coming to a tipping point in history. Think about it — millions of us now possess the education and resources to see the world from a very broad perspective. Millions of us understand that any perspective worth anything must include other perspectives, too. So millions of us already have everything we need to shift ourselves and our culture in a significant way.

Like, we already have the ability to evaluating ourselves and each other based on old-ass criteria.

We already have the ability to step back from the blur of suck-you-dry hypercapitalism and decide what we believe is important.

We already have the ability to refuse to allow the limitations of the past to dictate our personal and collective futures.

We simply need to claim these freedoms — all of them, and as many more as we can get our hands on. And then we need use them. Use them up. Use them till the wheels fall off.

This is what Dana does in Kindred. Everyone and everything pushes in on her, demanding her surrender. But the force rising out of her is stronger. She holds on to who she is. She fights for who she is. She uses every tool at her disposal to hold on to who she deeply knows she is.

And I can’t help but thing that this is exactly what the people of Ferguson have been doing, too — claiming and exercising the freedom they have on the books but not in reality. Rejecting the old idea that their role is to placidly accept murder and injustice and humiliation. Standing fast to what they know is right about what human beings are worth.

And we see the same thing happening in this year’s discussions about rape culture as it still exists in 2014 — women claiming the freedom to tell the truth about their experiences, even if others would rather not hear. Rejecting the idea that men are ever entitled to women’s bodies. Standing fast to what they know is right about what human beings are worth.

And on a much smaller scale, there are untold numbers of people claiming the freedom to say what they really think, and to have happy thoughts about their bodies even if they are fat or otherwise imperfect, and to define a sense of life’s meaning that has more to do with nature and relationships and less to do with consumerism and Kardashianism.

There really are millions of us, all over the place, popping out of the patterns we were raised in. Claiming and exercising our right to decide who we are, and then be that, regardless of what the world thinks.

It’s a beautiful, breathtaking thing to behold, and it’s also important. Because exercising freedom is how we increase it. It’s how we shake off limitations, create more options, and shift the tectonic plate of history in the right direction.

Dana didn’t live in a perfect world, even in 1976, and neither do we. But it’s a damn sight better than 1818, or 1890, or 1940. And if the brave folks who came before us were able to find a way to claim their freedoms and push history forward, even in those wildly oppressive times, then we can certainly find a way to do it now.

It’s not easy, but it is possible … and there is the realest kind of power in it.

photo by Dave Townsend // cc

How I Got This Way, Part 1: The Power of Choice

Alaska is where my consciousness came online. I remember dark wood paneling and dazzling bright snow and Sesame Street with my mom, who was super smart and had already taught me how to read. My dad was big and funny with golden red hair and a hard hat because he worked on the pipeline. My older brother and sister wore blue plaid uniforms to school, and, babynerd that I was, I couldn't wait to join them. As I recall, my family had an adventurous yet normal and fun life ... but everything changed in 1977 when my mom found a lump in her breast. A year later she was gone. I was five, my sister was ten, and my brother turned twelve just a couple days after she passed. We were bereft, especially my poor grandma, who had just lost her only child.

This sucked for all of us, to be sure, but I think being little helped me out a bit, because there were parts of what was happening that I just wasn't developed enough to understand or be upset about. Like, the morning they told me my mom had died, I didn't imagine anything awful; I imagined her rising up to heaven in a glittering swirl, like Cinderella's gown. She wasn't "dead," she just became abstract to me. I didn't see her anymore, but it didn't feel like she was really gone.

She was, though. A month or so later it was Thanksgiving and I remember staring out the window and thinking, "Well, this is how the world is, okay? Sometimes you get to go to Disney World and other times your mom gets sick and dies. Anything can happen. Don't forget it." And I accepted this as the Real Truth that it is, and I developed my strategies for dealing with it (reading, eating, doing like Deenie).

My dad, though ... Sigh. My poor dad. Left a widower at thirty-two with three shell-shocked kids to care for, the love of his life taken from him in a painful and horrific way ... well, it's no surprise he foundered, and honestly never really recovered. He drank, he raged, he got and lost job after job. We moved three or four times a year, sometimes to a big beautiful home with a pool and other times to crash in my dad's friend's living room. I call this the "raised by wolves" portion of my upbringing.

Luckily, I was a smart little babynerd, and teachers loved to teach me, so school is where I got my love. I went to something like fourteen different elementary schools in total, and I faced the first day at each of them with one goal -- to supplant whoever had thought they were the smartest kid in class previous to my arrival.

This rather mercenary technique actually ended up serving me pretty well, because my teachers did give me a lot of affection and attention. I mean, how could they not? I was a motherless little girl with big brown eyes and neglected dirty hair, so hungry to learn that I jumped out of my chair at every question, and they weren't made of stone. So I spent my days eagerly learning as much as I could, and I spent my nights reading and trying to stay out of the way.

A lot of messed up shit continued to happen through those years. I was courted and beaten and abandoned by a succession of stepmom wannabes. One of them stole all our furniture and skipped town while we were at our grandfather's funeral. Another one had a couple wretched kids of her own and liked to chase us all around the house with my dad's leather belt. Another one sang Linda Ronstadt covers in her band when she was nowhere NEAR as good as Linda Ronstadt. None of them lasted long.

But here's where I turned out to be super duper lucky -- because my response to all this was never "Why me?" It was always "What the fuck?" I think if I had internalized that craziness to the point where I felt responsible for it, I'd be a very different person today. But thankfully, I didn't. Whether this was the result of simple healthy self-esteem or some sort of in-born bitchiness, I'll never know.

Though I didn't take what was going on personally, I did notice that the way we lived was different from how other families lived. For instance, they stayed in one place long enough that their kids knew their way around, whereas I was always having to find a cop because I was lost. They had people over to their house. Their kids had piano lessons and ballet class and birthday parties. They ate dinner at home.

At first I didn't understand why our family's life was so different. I mean, sure, we didn't have a mom, but there were other things, too, and over time I began to connect the dots. Like ... I saw my dad drinking and losing his temper at home and I figured that stuff must be going on at work, too, and that's why we moved so much. Or I'd notice how we went out to a fancy dinner and got a new stereo one week but our electricity was shut off the next.

I got it -- a lot of these things happened as a result of my dad's choices. I could never bring myself to get too mad at him, because my heart breaks for everything he went through and in spite of it all he was always a gentle and loving father to me ... but I did learn a lot about randomness and choices and consequences by watching him.

My childhood gave me an early education in the fact that the world can be awful and it can also be amazing, and that sometimes which way things turn out is pretty random, but other times it is entirely about choices you make. So how do you make good ones? And how powerful are they? What are they capable of?

I'm still thinking about those questions, but I have learned something that is kind of mind-blowing: It is possible to make choices that transmute chaos and pain and bullshit into rocket fuel for living. It is possible to make choices that not only help us withstand the awful parts of life but also actually make our trials mean something.

So, what you have been reading here today is the story I've chosen to tell myself about the early part of my life, entitled What I Went Through as a Kid Didn't Make Me Weird; It Made Me Strong As Hell. Being raised by wolves didn't make me savage; it gave me the freedom to decide things for myself. Moving a million times didn't destabilize me; it gave me the ability to walk into any circumstance and feel like I got this.

If human beings have a superpower, I think this is it -- to choose what the events of our lives will mean to us. To choose what we become in their wake. To whatever extent we can.

Culture plays a role in all of this, too, as I learned when one of the stepmoms stuck around! More on that in Part 2 ...

Be Less Crazy About Your Body, Carnaval Style

Well, hello, dear reader. I’m writing to you today from my hotel in São Paulo, Brazil, where I arrived Saturday after two stellar weeks in the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa. Yes, it has been a helluva trip, and I am fully aware that I am basically the luckiest bitch alive. (So are you, probably, if you think about it!)

Saturday night was particularly amazing, because I got to experience the explosion of color and sound and energy that is Carnaval. It was a little surreal, because it’s Carnaval, and also because I’d just gotten off a 12-hour flight from South Africa. After a short nap, my confused body and I found ourselves here, in the middle of a full-on fiesta, at midnight.

Before I got there, I have to admit that my ideas about Carnaval were pretty stereotypical. I expected to see lots of beautiful almost-naked women with amazing bodies, and I did …

But I saw lots of other kinds of people, too! Old ladies doing hip rolls in neon spandex crop tops. Big hairy guys grinning and jumping up and down in crazy pink and green and gold outfits. Skinny girls with crooked teeth … thick girls with soft round bellies poking out of their bikinis … people of every color, size, and shape having a blast and getting down.

Sure, there were lots of conventionally sexy gals in tiny costumes with giant sparkly headdresses -- it’s Carnaval! I’d expect nothing less! But what really got me, and brought tears to my eyes more than once, was the fact that, on that night at least, everyone was beautiful.

Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that it didn’t really matter who was hot and who was not. What mattered was the music and the color and the feeling in the air. What mattered was that we were all together, shaking what our parents gave us and loving life at 3 am on a steamy São Paulo night.

Now, I understand that Brazil is not a body-image utopia. I know people here struggle with the same kinds of things that you and I struggle with. We all have days when we feel like Jabba the Hutt. We all board that train to Crazy Town at one point or another.

But what I’m feeling here -- what I felt at Carnaval, and what I feel when I watch people walk down the street and when I see the variety of bodies in bikinis at the beach -- is a decidedlack of shame. We might not all be perfect, but by God we all have the right to feel the sun on our bellies and our bundas. We all have the right to enjoy our bodies and what they can do, and there is absolutely no reason to be ashamed. Not one.

Our imperfect bodies can bring us mortification, or they can bring us pure undiluted joy. It’s up to us to decide … so let’s go for the good stuff, what do you say?

Career Planning With Your Middle Finger

Yesterday I had coffee with one of my best besties, and she was describing to me some of the horrors of her workplace … which I have a feeling won’t be her workplace for too much longer.

As she told me about having to apologize to people who fly off the handle for no reason, having to take orders from people who have no idea what her work is about, and having to endure micromanagement from people who end their list of inane requests with statements like, “And don’t accuse me of micromanaging!” … well I started to get kinda pissed on her behalf.

So I asked her -- what would happen if you just went in there with middle fingers blazing? Not literally, but figuratively … a symbol of an attitude of incredulity in the face of true silliness. What if you decided to do your job the way you think it should be done, “have to”s be damned, and tell the haters to suck it? What if you just ignored all the “helpful suggestions” and went about your business?

“I would probably get fired,” she replied, but I’m not so sure. Because, the thing is, she is excellent at her job. She regularly turns a routine task into something remarkable. Even though her bosses treat her like a child, even though they are batshit crazy and incapable of acting like adults, they still know that she does good work, and lots of it. And there is power in that.

So, from my point of view outside the situation, I can see that my beloved friend is suffering unnecessarily. She is in the sweet spot to get those middle fingers out and either transform her job into something she can deal with, or move on to something better.

How do I know this? Because I’ve followed the middle-finger career path for as long as I can remember, and people simply don’t treat me like this. When someone tries to micromanage me, well, that makes me giggle. When my boss asks me to do something in a way that I would never choose to do it, I explain to them why I’m not going to do that, and what I plan to do instead. When someone tries to force me to adhere to some stupid senseless policy, I am so busy kicking ass that I barely even hear them.

Is this because I am some magical creature that can’t be touched by the slings and arrows of modern work life? No. I think my ability to largely make my own rules in my work life mostly comes from the fact that I know how to flip a table when needed.

Do I mean actually flipping a table … not really. I mostly mean flipping a table in your mind. Cultivating a middle-finger attitude. Understanding that there are a thousand million jobs in the world, and as soon as you start thinking, “Whoa, shit, I really need this job,” they have you.

How do you do this? It starts by doing excellent work and knowing what you are talking about. So, if you are in a position where you’re not doing excellent work and you don’t know what you’re talking about, that’s the first place to start. Get better. Work harder. Learn.

Once you are awesome at what you do, THEN you can get out those middle fingers and wave them around a bit to create a bubble of Haha That’s Funny That You Think You Get To Fuck With Me. Like, when your boss says something insane, you can laugh like you know she’s just making a hilarious joke instead of actually trying to tell you, the expert, how to do your job. Instead of apologizing to crazy people for triggering their craziness, here’s how you will start dealing with them: you will ignore them and keep being awesome.

I understand that not every workplace has room for the kind of freedom that I’m talking about. And I know that sometimes it takes a little while to work out an escape plan.

But, seriously, have you ever known someone who had a shitty job or a horrible boss, and they just bummed out about it for years on end and never did anything about it? This is what I don’t want to happen to you, or to my bestie, because it is unnecessary.

There are always more jobs, just like there are always more prospective romantic partners, more people we could be friends with, more opportunities that would be great for us that we don’t even know about yet. There’s no need to be so risk-averse that we allow ourselves to languish away in a bad place. We only need to learn to get out those middle fingers and stop letting other people dictate how we feel and behave.

So … what would happen if my friend flipped a table at work? If she stopped being so conciliatory and started waving some middle fingers around in a light-hearted but deadly serious way? I think she might be surprised to see a change in how her colleagues treat her, and even more importantly, a change in how she sees herself.

I’m not asking anyone to turn into a mega-bitch … maybe just a tiny bitch. No need to drive all your colleagues away, but if you get a reputation for being someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, is that such a bad thing?

We ladies are raised to smooth things over, to say or do whatever needs to be said or done to keep a ball rolling, even if that ball is rolling over us. But sometimes that smooth path of least resistance involves more sacrifices than we should have to make. When that time comes, the best response, in my opinion, is to get out those middle fingers and let your voice rise up with Cee-Lo in a sweet, hearty chorus of “Fuck You.”

So here’s my advice to my gal, and to everyone who’s struggling with a shitty job where people treat you like an idiot: Stop smoothing over all the problems of the wackjobs around you. Do an excellent job, cultivate that middle-finger bubble, and realize that you already have the freedom to refuse to engage with insanity.

Thanks to Mr. Money Mustache for making me realize how applicable middle fingers are to just about everything, even grocery shopping.

Movin' On Up

The first time I visited the little house on Grape Street, it was May of 1999, and the man who is now my husband was marrying the woman who was once his wife. I walked to their wedding, because I lived in the same neighborhood, Mount Oliver, just a few blocks away. Back then, our 'hood was a decent place -- nothing to write home about, no, but quiet and peaceful, for the most part.

Over the years, that changed. What had been a sleepy working class neighborhood started slipping toward straight up war zone, with crime and violence and shady-feeling businesses driving out the shops and restaurants in our little downtown area. Driving around on warm nights began to feel like running a dangerous obstacle course, and shootings were happening so frequently that we couldn’t even keep them all straight. None of this ever touched me or any of my friends, thank the gods, but still … it was disconcerting to be around.

In 2005, I left Pittsburgh and our crumbling neighborhood, headed for a fancy new job in midtown Manhattan and a fancy apartment in Brooklyn. At that time, if you had told me that I’d ever end up in Mount Oliver ever again, I think I might have punched you in the face for even suggesting it.

But, life … well, as we all know by now, she is one hilarious bitch. Because what ended up happening over the next few years was my man’s first marriage fell apart, we fell in love, and my grandma -- who lived in the same neighborhood, just a few blocks away from my fella -- started needing more help. So I started spending more time there.

Then I lost my fancy job and left New York to move in with my man. Blammo -- I was back in Mt. Olly full time, in this cute but spent little house with three layers of roof shingles sliding in all directions, a bathroom so tiny that you could pee and wash your feet and brush your teeth all at the same time if you wanted, and a kitchen with a fun-house floor that left our baked goods an inch thicker on one side than the other until we learned to turn them 180 degrees halfway through cooking.

See the daylight showing between the halves of the roof in front? Somehow, miraculously, it didn't leak.

Don’t get me wrong -- our house was a cute little house, comfortable and snug and just the right size for us. And it was super cheap, which enabled Rich and me to get through some unsteady financial times over the past few years. Rich had a lovely little garden in the back and an office upstairs, and I took over the living room as my studio for sewing and writing. We were able to have a wonderful time there.

But also? We were really jonesing to get out -- mostly because of the neighborhood. We literally had a drug dealer next door to us, and he literally kept a pit bull on a 40 foot chain in the 25-foot-wide vacant lot between our houses. (This meant that, had we left our back door open, we could have hosted said pit bull for dinner.) In the last weeks before we left, a couple of tents popped up in that vacant lot, too -- lucky us, our own mini-shantytown!

On the other side, the neighbors were sweet people, but their house had even more serious maintenance issues than ours. These began to impact our lives when a sink hole opened up under their crumbling garage, creating a huge ditch in our driveway, and terrifying us. What if a little kid tried to play in there and got hurt? Even after repeated requests from us and citations from the city, the neighbors still didn't do anything about it.

Plus, I dunno, maybe I’m a whiner / yuppie / terrible person, but, to me, it is depressing to see prostitutes and drug dealers hawking their wares at like ten in the morning. And to hear dogs barking and fireworks going off and people yelling at each other in the street at all hours. Yes, I'm crotchety and old, so kindly get off my lawn.

Then there was the house itself, which is a hundred and twenty years old and in need of a lot of TLC. We did the best we could -- we painted and put down new carpet and kept the inside really nice -- but honestly the place needed much more maintenance than Rich or I had the money, interest, or knowledge to perform.

And then there were all the memories of the past lurking in the ducts and brickwork. It's not that we sat around thinking about the fact that the house was the scene of Rich's first marriage and the crumbling of that marriage ... but somehow, they still felt linked. We wanted to begin somewhere new, and make it our home together.

So … last year we started trying to sell. We priced it aggressively -- aka CHEAP -- which made the numbers work out great for someone to buy and hold it as a rental. But, even pricing it below $10,000, it seemed almost impossible to find anyone interested. We even showed the place to a bunch of We Buy Ugly Houses investors, but between the neighborhood and the work needed on the house, none of them wanted to touch it.

Which seemed like a really bad sign. I mean, if the Ugly Houses dudes don't even want your place, what are you supposed to do with it? Pay off the entire mortgage and then sign it over to a homeless person or something? Or, if we stopped paying, would the bank take it back, or would they just never foreclose and leave us trapped there in limbo forever? The uncertainty and the feeling of stuckness were hard to take, especially coupled with all the other stuff going on in our lives at the time.

Then, like something out of a dream, an amazing couple named Rick and Sherrie came into our lives. They had a friend who was looking for properties just like ours to hold and to rent to help fund his retirement! And, wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles -- even after looking at the roof, he was still interested! We tried hard not to scare him away, gave him a great deal on the house, and started making our plans to GTFO.

Many hours of research on Craig's List helped us find the perfect place to move -- a spacious apartment with huge windows in a high rise overlooking a pretty little park in a part of town where it’s walkable and there are things around that you actually want to walk to. The place we saw was available June 1st, but it rented to someone else before we could sign the paperwork on the old place ... and, whomp whomp, the next availability wasn’t until August 1st. So, after we signed the closing papers in May, we started packing and waiting for three months that felt like forever.

Finally, last week, we got the keys, and when I opened the door, it felt like a hundred Christmas mornings. Fresh new wood floors, amazing view and light and spaciousness!

And huge closets! And tons of counter space in the kitchen! And these amazing vintage tile floors in the bathrooms!

Yes, I said bathrooms. We now have two. UNBELIEVABLE LUXURY.

We've been here a few mornings now, and I keep waking up just before dawn, loafing in bed for a while, watching the sun rise in the hills in the distance, burning off the fog and turning the dark trees bright.

And Grape Street and the crack deals and the pit bull and the sinkhole and the crooked floors and the tiny shower and the gross basement -- it all feels like a distant dream, or a long-told fable with a happy ending.

Ridiculously happy!