Word Weirdness: Hey, Lady!

three brown wooden letters wall decor
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There are lots of things you can yell at a guy to let him know he’s getting a flat tire. “Hey, buddy,” “Hey, bro,” “Hey, dude,” “Hey, mister,” “Hey, Mac,” “Hey, man,” and the ever-popular “Hey, you!”

But there is only one thing you can reasonably yell to a woman in the same situation: “Hey, lady!” “Hey, you” or “Hey, woman!” just seems rude. You can’t even call her “miss” or “ma’am” without kicking in the instant, if insincere, politeness of “Excuse me.” And you can’t put casual terms for women after “Hey!” (sis, sister (unless she’s a nun), girl, gal, doll (unless you’re a trucker), or chick (unless you’re stuck in the 60s)). I suppose you could yell, “Hey, person of the female gender!” but by then you’d be past her and unable to get your message across.

There’s a similar problem referring to women in a group. “Ladies” is virtually the only choice. (“Here are your appetizers, ladies.”) Women can sometimes get away with calling other women “girls” or “gals” if they’re being informal, but if men try this, it sounds patronizing, because it is.

And mixed groups! What is one to do then? Once I was teaching a college class. One student called me out – and rightly so – because I referred to them as “guys.”

But what were the alternatives? “Guys and gals”? (Too casual.) “You-all” or “Y’all”? (This was in Ohio, not Texas.) “You folks”? (Too folksy.) “Dudes and dudettes”? (Really?) “Ladies and gentlemen”? (I was a teacher, not a ringmaster, though it felt like it at times.) “Class”? (Too Sister Mary Elephant.) “Students”? (Too juvenile to my ears.) “People”? (Well, maybe. I think that’s what I ended up with.)

Of course, I could have just used “you,” meaning the second person plural, but it being the first semester, I hadn’t taught them that yet.

I had solved the levels of address problem by referring to the class members as Mr. Jones and Ms. Smith, since I wished to be addressed as “Ms. Coburn.” (I briefly considered asking to be called “sensei,” but that would still have left me with the problem of what to call them.) The students were amused because they didn’t learn each other’s first names and had to use Mr. Jones and Ms. Smith when they crossed paths in the library or cafeteria.

I just looked up what the collective nouns are for men and women, to see whether they’d be any help. (Collective nouns are those oddball phrases like “a murder of crows” or “a brood of hens.” Many people I know are disappointed that there is no “squad of squids.”)

Boringly enough, the collective nouns for persons are “a band of men” and “a bond of women,” both of which imply that they stick together. Other groups have much more evocative names like “a neverthriving of jugglers,” “a threatening of courtiers,” and “a fixie of hipsters.”

I’m jealous.

At the least we could be “a confusion of people” or “a division of citizens” or “a passel of persons.” A “brawl of men.” A “nest of women.” But then we’d need collective nouns for LGBTQIA+ people and there would be no end to it, what with the proliferation of new terms for sexual identities that seem to crop up every day. (I still don’t get the difference between gender-fluid and pansexual.)

Let’s just stick with “a commonality of humans.”

 

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Satanic Panic and Politics in America

The U.S has long been uneasy with the idea of the occult, from Harry Potter to Halloween parties. But the most extreme form of fear occurred in the 1980s, when panic swept America. “Stranger Danger” and “Good-Touch/Bad-Touch” were taught in schools. Someone – many someones – were after America’s kids.

But these weren’t ordinary pedophiles the nation learned to fear. They were occultists. Satanic. Devil-worshippers. And they wanted our children for acts that were unholy as well as sexual. Black masses. Ritual killings. And of course there were the run-of-the-mill child pornography rings, made up of community leaders.

The center of the “Satanic Panic” was daycare centers. As Vox magazine pointed out:

Although it was a time of economic growth and financial prosperity, the Reagan Era was also a time of unease centered on population growth, urbanization, and the rise of the double-income family model, which necessitated a sharp rise in the need for daycare services. As a result, anxiety about protecting the nuclear family from the unknown dangers of this new era was high.

Uneasy with the idea of women of child-bearing age entering the workforce, society seemed bent on convincing them that leaving their children in the care of others was fraught with danger. Unspeakable danger. The worst anyone could envision. So bad that no one could be trusted.

The only safe thing to do was to stay home and keep your children under your own eyes at all times. The ultimate expression of this was the McMartin Preschool case and the ensuing trial.

Rumors of sexual abuse at the daycare center run by the Buckey family mushroomed into florid accounts of ritual abuse. Arrests were made. The community was outraged.

The Institute for Psychological Therapies explained it thus:

The formal charges were wrapped in a conspiracy theory that portrayed the defendants as satanists who used the preschool as headquarters for a vast kiddie porn/prostitution empire that produced millions of child sex photos. The children were allegedly drugged and forced to participate in satanic rituals and sex games with teachers and strangers at both on and off campus locations. During those episodes the children encountered turtles, rabbits, lions, a giraffe, a sexually abusive elephant, dead and burned babies, dead bodies in mortuaries and graveyards, goat men, flying witches, space mutants, a movie star, and local politicians.

The allegations seemed literally unbelievable, impossible in fact, but arrests were made and a years-long trial began. The call to action took the form of “Believe the Children!”

The result? Reports of similar atrocities around the nation and indeed around the world. More and more daycare owners and workers accused.

But the bottom line? Few convictions – none in the McMartin case – and many elsewhere that were later overturned. A new focus on how therapists should interview children for forensic purposes. And perhaps some women frightened out of the workplace, but no end to the profound need for daycare (although funding for that was another matter entirely).

By 1992, reported Vox, “the Department of Justice thoroughly debunked the myth of the ritualistic satanic sex abuse cult.” But the panic didn’t end there.

Flash forward to the 21st century – the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections. Then there was “Pizzagate.” According to Salon, “this bizarre pizza-pedophilia piece of make-believe seems to have struck the right kind of nerve in this simultaneously gullible and paranoid time to become a lasting, serious concern.”

Accusations focused on a Washington pizza parlor called Comet Ping Pong. It was another theory based on dreadful, unthinkable threats to children.

There were rumors of human trafficking and child abuse in a seemingly innocent pizza place. Again the allegations veered into absurdity, such as emails contained code words – “cheese pizza” for “child pornography” because they have the same initials. Salon noted: “If ‘pizza’ is code for pedophilia, the rumor mongers reasoned, clearly a pizza restaurant is the dungeon where all the horrors go down.” The crimes were said to take place in the pizzeria’s basement. Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, the shop had no basement. (It’s perhaps notable that one of the accusations in McMartin was that much of the abuse occurred in underground tunnels, which didn’t exist either.)

As compared to the “Satanic Panic,” it didn’t gain much traction, except with one sorry citizen who believed it so wholeheartedly that he showed up at Comet Ping Pong Pizza with a rifle.

But, like the “Satanic Panic,” Pizzagate had a political subtext. Well, not even a subtext, really. The thing that made Pizzagate special was that it was an attack on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who had only a vague connection to someone who knew someone who visited the pizzeria. It was unclear what her involvement in the supposed human trafficking/pedophile ring might have been, but it was clear from emails, the conspiracy theorists claimed, that she knew all about it.

Again, Salon nailed it:

Hoaxsters and the deranged collaborated to create a compelling and nonsensical story about depraved, satanic elites operating with impunity. This struck a chord with people who have long seen the mainstream media and politically powerful and well-connected people as manipulative and evil.

Especially if those implicated are people the theorists don’t like, such as working mothers, daycare center workers, or Hillary Clinton. Does it seem odd to anyone else that, while pedophilia is statistically a predominately male crime, women seem to be at the bottom of the dogpile, the subtext, the unseen movers?

References

http://www.ipt-forensics.com/journal/volume7/j7_2_1_9.htm

https://www.vox.com/2016/10/30/13413864/satanic-panic-ritual-abuse-history-explained

https://www.salon.com/2016/12/10/pizzagate-explained-everything-you-want-to-know-about-the-comet-ping-pong-pizzeria-conspiracy-theory-but-are-too-afraid-to-search-for-on-reddit/

Enough With the Ribbons, Already

assorted color ribbon with spool
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I understood it well enough when it started. Yellow ribbon = bring home the hostages. (Remember that, kids? Americans were being held hostage by Iran back in the late 1970s.) Even the hostages themselves wore yellow ribbons as a secret signal that they knew people back home cared about them.

To me, it made little sense and the message was just a tad “off.” The origin of the yellow ribbon meme (we didn’t call it that then) was in a song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree,” which was about a prisoner coming home to find a celebration of “a hundred yellow ribbons” around the tree.

Which was okay as far as it went, prisoners coming home, yellow ribbons to celebrate. But in the song, the ribbons were an answer to the question “Do you still want me?” (after being in prison). Regarding the hostages, that wasn’t a question at all. Of course we still wanted them (except possibly the one who read the Koran while captive).

Later came the pink ribbons, for breast cancer awareness. I have problems with this, too. Pink is the color that in our present society represents girls, so you’d think that pink would be a good choice. But the fact is that men get breast cancer too. And there are other diseases such as endometriosis and cervical cancer that are unique to those with female reproductive organs. What color ribbon do they get?

Actually, there’s an answer for that.

Endometriosis awareness ribbons are yellow, which adds to the confusion about prisoners and hostages. Cervical cancer awareness ribbons are teal and white (combined).

The number of diseases and conditions associated with each color has proliferated. My personal cause, bipolar disorder, shares the ribbon color green with adrenal cancer, bone marrow donation, cerebral palsy, dwarfism, eye injury, gastroparesis, glaucoma, leukemia, literacy, neurofibromatosis, and stem cell research, to name but a few.

These days we are encouraged to wear or decorate our profile pictures with orange ribbons for gun control. But orange already signifies awareness of:

  • ADHD
  • Agent Orange
  • COPD
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Kidney Cancer – Renal Cell Carcinoma
  • Leukemia
  • Lupus
  • Malnutrition
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) – Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).
  • Self Injury
  • Sensory Processing Disorder
  • Spinal Cancer
  • Prader-Willi Syndrome

Admittedly, people who have those conditions and those who love them need support and awareness, but what does the ribbon actually mean when it means all of those things? Do people really go up to a ribbon-wearer and ask, “What are you wearing that ribbon for?” Or are they used only when a bunch of people gather who are advocating for the same thing, in which case why do they need ribbons?

The proliferation of ribbon colors is stunning, too. In addition to the green, yellow, pink, orange, and teal/white mentioned above, there are awareness ribbons in: black, blue (two-tone, blue/gray, denim jean blue, indigo, navy blue, light blue, robin’s egg blue, royal blue, pale blue), brown, burgundy, cloud (?), copper, cream, gray, gold, jade, peach, pearl, purple, puzzle (not technically a color), red, silver, teal, violet, yellow, and white, plus assorted combinations of the above and myriad shades of most. I could find only a few colors that represented a single condition or cause. And symbols proliferate, too: infinity, circle, star, butterfly, and even fox tail.

I once saw a person soliciting donations with a black-and-white cow-spotted ribbon, for a dairy farmer who’d lost his barn in a fire. A number of the other colored ribbons are used for fundraising too, particularly the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s pink ribbons, which can be found on nearly any piece of merchandise you’d care to name. But if you have a t-shirt with, say, a green ribbon design and a slogan about bipolar awareness, why do you need the ribbon at all? The slogan carries the necessary information.

Will ribbons for causes go out of vogue? Not soon, anyway. I’m not saying that all these causes and conditions don’t need awareness and understanding and fundraising. And there are certainly “orphan diseases” that don’t have the awareness factor that pink ribbons convey.

What I’m worried about is the signal-to-noise ratio. With all the combinations, what does any particular one mean? (I had to look them up on a chart to write this post – https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/awareness/ribbons.php.)

After all, what does a pink ribbon really convey? Self-check your breasts monthly? Get mammograms? Celebrate survivors? Give money?

Ribbons are easy to make and to wear, but knowing what to do about what they represent is a matter for education, not just awareness.

Why a National Curriculum Makes Sense

I can hear the cries of outrage now: Local control! Washington bureaucrats! Educational fascism! One size doesn’t fit all! Who wants to be like France or Japan?

Settle down, now. I don’t mean that one central authority should determine everything taught in America’s schools.

But I do think some standardization is long overdue.

Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 book Savage Inequalities revealed massive problems with local funding in education – a system that rewarded already wealthy districts with more money. Local curriculum standards are also fraught with inequalities.

Some of the problems are due to state standards, while part of them are promulgated by local politics.

Let’s start with states. Only a few states drive the textbook industry. (I’m looking at you, Texas, California, and New York!) Textbook producers must tailor their content to the requirements of these large, influential states. Other states are lucky if they get a textbook supplement for their state or region.

When those textbook-dominating states wish to present a, let’s call it, idiosyncratic view of, say, history, much of the nation has to go along with them.

Difficult as it would be to arrive at a consensus U.S. history, given that some states appear to believe that slavery, for example, was a good or at least neutral, thing and others present U.S. presidents as paragons without regard to their flaws or challenges, a balanced, factual approach would be welcome. Not that we shouldn’t teach students to weigh various factors and form opinions – we certainly should, in pursuit of those critical-thinking skills that everyone talks about.

But in some areas of the curriculum, facts are facts. Students who live in districts or states that deny evolution are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to college biology, geology, history, and other classes. Schools that advocate “teaching the controversy” of creationism (or intelligent design, or whatever they’re calling it now) are doing their students a disservice. If you want the Christian Bible in K-12 schools, teach it as literature or in the context of comparative religions throughout history. It’s not like school shootings are caused by comparative religion classes.

And let’s talk sex education for a minute. Again, factual information, presented at age-appropriate times, is crucial. As the saying goes, “If they’re old enough to ask, they’re old enough to know.”

Presenting sex purely as reproduction is also problematic. The clitoris is not essential to reproduction, so there’s virtually no mention of it in discussions of sexual anatomy – in fact, in many states it’s forbidden. Non-reproductive but related topics like consent should also be covered.

And let’s dispel the notion that teaching kids about sex will make them have sex. Kids are going to have sex anyway – might as well see that they have the facts about it, if only to lower rates of teen pregnancies and STDs, which most people agree. Yes, that means teaching about condoms and how to use them.

So, what does my vision of a national curriculum look like? Actually, lots of things would be left up to local schools. They can spend time teaching the history of their state if they want, for instance, although with the mobility of current society, the students may end up living in another state entirely. Maybe that time could be better spent elsewhere.

I have no preference as to whether reading is taught via phonics or whole language. It should probably be a combination of both. In fact, most subjects should be taught with Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences in mind.

But when it comes to courses that are currently neglected, there are ones that I think need to be taught early and often. Civics is a big one: our town for youngsters, our state for the slightly older, and our nation for everyone.

Subjects to cover in those courses? The three branches of government (with an emphasis on what each can and cannot do, instead of the usual lip-service mention of checks and balances); the Constitution; and The Bill of Rights would be a good start. And no just memorizing the numbers of the Articles or Amendments! Students should graduate with an understanding of how these documents are supposed to work.

Other suggestions for a national curriculum?

  • STEM, but not to the exclusion of the arts.
  • Practical subjects such as budgeting and banking and credit, which could be taught in math or practical home skills classes.
  • Art and music appreciation at the very least, with not all attention in music given to the three B’s. Something modern would be nice, or even a unit on musical theater.
  • Physical fitness focusing on lifelong pursuits and health.
  • Keyboarding and use of common office software.
  • Hands-on pursuits such as woodworking, cooking, and gardening, but not segregated by sex.
  • Foreign languages to begin in grades K-3, when a child has the best chance of learning them fluently. ASL at any age.

Yes, I know that teachers already have too much to teach. A number of these subjects would have to be electives or mini-courses – gardening, for example. And we’d have to reconsider the time spent teaching to the ridiculous proliferation of “high-stakes testing,” which has too much effect on funding and not enough on actual, productive learning. And we’d have to give enough money to the schools to accomplish all this (see Savage Inequalities, above).

Who should determine the national curriculum? I don’t know, except that actual classroom teachers and school administrators should be involved as well as education theorists or bureaucrats. In fact, I don’t think anyone who has never spent time as a public school classroom teacher should have much of a say.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with all – or perhaps any – of these ideas. But as long as my tax dollars support our public schools, I’m as entitled to have an opinion as anyone else.

How I Learned I Was a Cat Person

cat-pet-furry-face-162319.jpegI looked around at the rooms full of cats. Black cats, white cats, orange cats, gray cats. Cats sleeping, playing, hiding. But I wasn’t a cat person. Or was I?

When I was a kid, we never had cats – only dogs. Back in those days, dogs didn’t live in the house but also weren’t allowed to run loose. So they usually had a length of chain or a fenced yard to circumscribe their limits. Only tiny fluff-dogs such as Pomeranians had the run of the house. My mom, it turned out later, liked little fluff-dogs, but my dad didn’t. So our dogs, first Blackie then Bootsie, lived in the garage, with a chain to run on.

I never really bonded with either one. Another thing that was uncommon back then was dog obedience school, so when I went out to feed the dog, he would jump all over me with muddy paws. And when he got to ride in the car for long weekends away, he would drool, track mud on the towel we laid down for him, and vomit (until we learned to give him half a Dramamine before we started).

I longed for a cuddly pet and one that I could call my own. My next pet was a rabbit, which I named Christina, the most beautiful name I could think of. This was also in the days before rabbits became indoor pets, so Christina lived in a wood and chicken-wire cage, in the yard in summer and in the garage in winter. No real opportunities for cuddling or bonding.

So it went. No pets in my college dorm. No pets in the apartment complex where I lived after I graduated. But I began to think more and more that what I needed was a cat. My father had hated cats because one had once bit his mother. Perhaps it was time for generations of antipathy to stop.

At last I got an apartment which was four rooms on the second floor of a house. I asked the landlady if I could have a cat – just one – and was given permission (if unenthusiastically).

The obvious place to find a cat was at the local Society for the Improvement of Conditions for Stray Animals (SICSA). And the obvious person to bring along to help me was my fiancé.

SICSA had rooms full of cats (and other rooms full of dogs). Some were in individual cages and others shared larger rooms with other cats. I thought I might want a calico cat as I found them the most attractive, but there were none at the shelter that day. There were, however, a few tortoiseshell cats.

Tortoiseshells are a variety of calico with mostly black fur, mottled with some orange, thanks to the same genetic arrangement that causes the distinctive calico pattern. Some people find them unattractive, but I was drawn to a little tortie. She was shy and quiet and gentle, the opposite of the dogs my family had had.

But there were other cats that attracted me too, to the point that I was overwhelmed. “Which cat do you think I should get?” I asked my fiancé.

“I don’t know, honey. They’re all nice cats,” he replied, proving that I had indeed chosen the right man to marry.

I took the little tortie home and called her Bijou. (Her nametag said, “Bejeau,” but I assumed it was a typo.)  She spent the first night sleeping across my throat. She was otherwise so shy that she didn’t want to be picked up. But every day when I came home from work, I picked her up and gave her a kiss and set her back down. Eventually, she gained enough confidence to sit with me on the sofa and watch the Today Show and for me to carry her around.

Ever since, I have had up to five cats at a time, and almost always a calico or a tortie – or both – among them. Bijou, Anjou, Julia, Laurel, Louise, and Dushenka have fulfilled my need for a calico or tortie to call my own. Not that I haven’t loved the orange tabbies and gray tabbies that my husband favors and the tuxedo cat, the gray, and the black-and-white spotted cat we’ve also lived with.

But the calicos and torties hold a special place in my heart. They taught me that cats were what I really needed.

Weird Food Faves and Fails

I admire adventurous cooks. Especially ones who make something out of what’s already in the house instead of going to the store for a double rack or ribs, which requires taking out a meat loan. If it’s in the fridge, freezer, or pantry, it’s fair game. Unless it’s game in the pantry, in which case you have bigger problems than what to eat.

People who cook this way inspired me and my husband to start cooking again after a long spell of frozen, pre-cooked Useless People Meals™. Tom and Leslie had a dish called “Experimental Chicken,” which, as you can probably guess, never came out the same way twice. It did, however, have a consistent theory – chicken, salt, pepper, garlic, and some kind of sauce. Any kind of sauce. Chili. Thai. Mexican. Indian. Martian. (They are both science fiction fans.)

My husband and I were inspired. Our dishes were not just experiments; at times they seemed straight out of a mad scientist’s lab. The trend was encouraged by the fact that my husband likes the one-of-a-kind and slight-irregulars tables at the stores where he shops. He’ll bring home a “unique” ingredient and then try to build a dish around it.

For example, he recently brought home spaghetti sauce in two flavors: regular and chipotle. The only problem was, the sauces weren’t tomato-based. They used pumpkin as the main ingredient. And he decided to try them out not with regular spaghetti, but with spaghetti squash.

Now, I’m not a big fan of spaghetti squash, which I find watery and tasteless. And the pumpkin sauces looked, shall we say, dubious. I instantly knew why they had appeared on the “Manager’s Special” table. But there they were, so in the interest of science and encourage culinary courage, I agreed to try it.

Given the bland nature of spaghetti squash, I picked the pumpkin-chipotle sauce to go with it. We figured out how to solve the wet-noodle problem thanks to Google, which has replaced cookbooks in our kitchen. And Dan decided to add some bite-sized chunks of leftover pork chop because he feels that every meal should contain meat, unless he has to kill it himself.

The first forkful was not inspiring. It was definitely pumpkiny, with a brief finish of chipotle on the back of the tongue. The more we ate of it, the less odd it seemed to get. The result was what I like to call a “Work in Progress” – something that’s survivable but needs either tweaking or a major overhaul before it enters our regular repertoire. I still hope the manager never finds that sauce “special” again, though.

Another one-of-a-kind item that appeared in the grocery bag was apple-bourbon salsa. It struck me as an awful combination for salsa, though I do enjoy peach or mango salsa. But, valiantly, I dipped in a chip and made a discovery. “This is horrible salsa,” I said. It reminded me of all those weird new alcoholic drinks like cranapple schnapps and birthday cake tequila and whatever that liqueur is that comes in a bottle that looks like Oil of Olay.

“But,” I added, “it tastes like pretty good barbecue sauce.” We tried it out on a handy pork loin that had survived in our freezer, and declared it delicious. Now I wish we could find another jar of it.

Our best culinary invention came when my husband, disappointed by a frozen cheeseburger mac that contained only ground meat, macaroni, and cheese, declared, “We can do better than this!”

Our new, improved version included those basics, plus garlic, diced onion, diced tomatoes with green chiles, and diced dill pickles. And way too much cheese – our theory is that everything should come with way too much cheese. Occasionally we add mushrooms or bacon if some happens to be around.

But the ingredient that really makes the dish – and makes it taste like a real cheeseburger – is a drizzle of ketchup over the top. As over the top (sorry, not sorry) as that may sound, it brings the whole dish together. Even I, ketchup lover that I am, had my doubts, but once I tried it I loved it and we have never made this one-skillet meal without it since.

Unfortunately, not every experimental dish goes that well. A man I once knew had a “signature dish” that he regularly made. It started innocently enough, with ground beef and rice in a stew pot. Then it started to get weird. Knorr instant split-pea soup was the next ingredient. After that all cooked together to a porridge-y consistency, at the last moment before serving, he added pineapple chunks “for the contrast in flavor, texture, and temperature.”

And that wasn’t even the worst of it. He made huge batches of it and kept adding things as the days went by. The most, uh, memorable addition was leftover Chinese food. The actual “recipe” has not survived, and neither did the relationship.

The porridge may not have actually ended the romance, but it’s surely no accident that I ended up with a man who at least understands the concept of flavor profiles, even if he does shop from the quick-sale table.

A Not-Mother’s Mother’s Day Post

This is my mother. I’m not like her – I never had children. But what if I had? What would my life with children have been like?

In my younger days, I never really expected to get married and had never pictured myself having children. But I married in my mid-20s and kind of assumed that I’d have children, or at least one child. I remember telling my husband that if we did so, I would like to have said progeny before I turned 30.

That never happened. Then or later. There are various reasons for that, most of which boil down to choosing not to procreate. Suffice it to say that my husband and I have remained childless, or child-free, or whatever you wish to call it, and (as far as we know) not because of any medical complication.

But recently I stopped to think: What if I had had those theoretical children according to my imaginary schedule? Where would they (and I) be now?

First, I assume they would have been boys with bad eyesight and funny hair. My husband’s family runs not-quite-exclusively to boys, he’s near-sighted and I’m far-sighted, and he has a non-Afro-Afro, which his mother determinedly tried to part and subdue, to little effect.

I also picture them – or him, at any rate – being a difficult child. Dan’s “inner child” is, shall we say, very close to the surface, and I’m certain that among the three of them (Dan, inner child, and outer child), the testosterone level would have been high enough to cause a flight hazard for jetliners. I would have been severely outnumbered and completely unprepared, never having had even one brother. They would have ganged up on me, I feel sure. That would have left me to be the “Bad Mommy,” in the sense of being the one trying vainly to impose a little order, something I’ve never really been able to do in my own life.

Long before now, we’d have been paying for little Jim’s therapy. (James is a name that appears in both our families, so for simplicity’s sake, I’ll leave out all the negotiating that would have happened.) Jim would have needed the therapy because my bipolar disorder would have not just affected my parenting skills, but might have increased his chances of having the disorder too.

(I’m sure there are bipolar people with children who manage somehow, but I don’t understand how they do it. Really, I don’t understand how parents without bipolar do it.)

Most of my friends who reproduced around the same time I “should have” turned out children that are intelligent, sociable, as well-behaved as one could reasonably expect, and likely to be talented at artistic or scientific endeavors. They are now, by and large, collegians, college graduates, and productive members of society – and some even parents themselves. (And wasn’t that a shock when someone I was in Girl Scouts with became a grandmother!)

One or two of the kids have had difficulties of the kind that need extra nurturing and support, or illnesses or conditions that require medical treatment – but there’s no way to predict those or blame them on the parents. Only one that I know of has had trouble with the law, which is a pretty good average, considering all the friends I have and the propensity they’ve shown for reproduction.

The children have brought the families love, satisfaction, struggle, pride, work, expense, joy, tears, and excitement – exactly as we kids brought my parents, I believe. And that’s what I believe children would have brought to me as well.

I don’t regret not having children. Eventually I learned that was not the path for me. But still sometimes I wonder:

Could I have done as well as my friends? As my own mother? I’ll never know.

 

A Brief Guide to Gaslighting

“You’re crazy. I never said that.”

“That’s not the way it happened. You’re crazy.”

“No one believes you. You’re crazy.”

“You’re crazy. You’re just overreacting.”

What do these statements have in common? Obviously, they involve one person telling another that she or he is crazy.

More subtly though, the speaker is saying that the other’s perceptions and feelings are invalid, untrue – wrong.

And that’s gaslighting.

Gaslighting describes a mind game that emotional abusers use to control their victims. (Gaslight is also an old movie, in which a husband uses the technique to try to convince his wife that she is insane.) The victim of gaslighting is usually a woman and the perpetrator usually a man. Of course this is not always true. Either sex can be the gaslighter and either sex the gaslightee.

Back when I was in college and extremely depressed, I had an experience of being gaslit. My grasp on reality was not entirely firm at the time, both because of the depression and because I was physically, socially, and emotionally cut off from the outside world, family and most friends. This isolation left the gaslighter, Rex, in a position of control.

I endured everyday denials of reality, like those mentioned above, but the most obvious one – the one that made me aware that I was being gaslit –happened when I suggested that we go for couples counseling. Rex asked if I was sure I wanted to, as he and the therapist could declare me a danger to self and others and have me put away. That, of course, was not true and I knew it wasn’t, which gave me my first clue that something was amiss.

When we got to the couples sessions, Rex tenderly held my hand and spoke of how concerned he was about me and how much he wanted to help me get better. In other words, he was saying that I was the crazy one and that he wasn’t. That is the very basis of gaslighting – to make the other person seem or possibly even become crazy.

Once a person recognizes the gaslighting for what it is, she can begin learning to trust her own perceptions again. This will not be easy. I know it wasn’t for me.

It took a long time and a lot of healing before I could recognize what had happened, how my circumstances had been controlled, how my perceptions had been invalidated – how I had been gaslit. That was a vast revelation. It was like turning the tube of a kaleidoscope and seeing a different pattern come into focus. The elements that made up my life may have been the same, but the new perspective changed everything.

Having someone outside the situation who can validate your perceptions is an important tool in recovery. Sometimes a friend or family member can perform this function, but mental health professionals who have been trained in the process are often more successful. They are the people we often turn to who can tell us we are not crazy, that our feelings are valid, and that the mind game of gaslighting has affected us.

With help, a person’s thinking becomes more clear, accurate, and trusted. Turning off the gaslight is like turning on a much more powerful kind of light – one that illuminates your life, improves your clarity of vision, and begins to break through the gloom and despair.

And that light is more powerful than gaslight.

 

A version of this post appeared earlier in my “Bipolar Me” blog (bipolarjan.wordpress.com). It proved so popular that I thought I’d share it here.

Why I Wear Plaid Flannel to Work

If you guessed that I’m a lumberjack, you’re wrong.

Photo by Kelly

I am a writer, editor, and proofreader, and I work at home. In my pajamas.

It’s great. My commute to work is from upstairs in the bed to downstairs at my desk. I have a coffee maker in my study and a box of cold cereal under my desk. That takes care of everything from breakfast to my mid-morning break. Lunch is only a kitchen away and the sofa is in the next room for TV watching. Then voilà, I’m all ready for bed again.

Of course, there are other choices than plaid flannel, but I like to stick with the basics. (And, hey, lumberjacks can be beefy and hunky and… stop that, Janet, get back to work! Try to think of Sheldon Cooper instead.)

Personally, I buy men’s flannel pajamas, as women’s have the curse of all women’s clothing – no pockets. At least men’s pajamas have a pocket or two where I can stash my cell phone or a snack for later. And I like my pajamas loose and comfortable. If you can’t be comfortable, there’s no sense in working in your pajamas.

In the summer, I prefer nighties that are basically long t-shirts for comfort and clever sayings and graphics (I ❤ My Bed, It’s Meow or Never, a kitten in an astronaut helmet). Or plain men’s big-n-tall t-shirts, again because of the comfort and the pocket.

It’s true that my study is on the first floor, and has a window that faces the street. Fortunately, there is a strategic shrub in front of it and a set of blinds so that I can keep my pajama-clad work habits to myself. But I live on a little-traveled cul-de-sac and my neighbors already think I’m weird, so it’s really not that much of a problem.

Another problem I don’t have is business meetings. Most are handled by telephone conference calls, so there’s no problem there. But even if I must Skype, all I have to do is keep a respectable top in my study (and not allow the cats to sit on it). No one will ever notice – or even see – my pajama-clad legs. (Or bare legs in the summer.) It gives me a nice rebel feeling too, like I’m getting away with something, which of course I am.

On-site business meetings are something I can well do without. Suit or dress, pantyhose (if anyone still wears those), shoes (instead of fuzzy slippers, part of my usual ensemble), coiffed ‘do (did I mention I can have bedhead or at most a simple ponytail at work?).

To tell the truth, I’ve even worked in my underwear on really hot summer days. You can conduct a phone interview in your delicates (especially if you have plaid panties) with no one the wiser (except maybe the neighbors, see above). Just imagine you have a suit on; people can hear it in your voice. They really can.

Of course, there is one drawback to working at home in your pajamas – cats. Besides sitting on your one respectable blouse, they may try to sit on your lap, keyboard, or papers; or nuzzle your screen; or try to capture your mouse. You can shut the door if you have one, but that will only lead to a lot of meowing, hissing, squabbles, and thumps. (What happens if you have kids, I don’t know. Probably more meowing, hissing, squabbles, and thumps. Plus the kids are likely to want to go to school in their pajamas, citing parental precedent.)

By the way, men can join the work-from-home-in-your-pajamas club too, but since I wear men’s pjs, I think it only fair that they wear women’s.

 

This post was inspired by a comment thread in the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop (EBWW) attendees Facebook page.

 

What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.