Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Letter to Me

To Alice, aged fourteen, 

I am writing to you today to tell you that you have become exactly what you feared and what you thought you already were - 


That body you see in the mirror - a body which, as yet, you do not have - is exactly what your body will be in thirteen years. You will have a tummy; and no, you don't have one yet, even though you do two hundred crunches a day to stave off a bit of softness in the abdomen. Your thighs will touch; really touch, no hint of the much coveted thigh gap. Your face will be round, your bum will be squishy, your chest will be, to put it bluntly, huge. 

And you will have the prettiest smile. 

I'm writing to you today in hopes that I can reach back through time and reassure you, reassure the skinny girl who finds pride in skipping meals, who takes photographs of herself late at night to make sure that she's not fat. I'm writing to you because I want you to go away and I want your voice, still young and shaking, to get out of my head. You don't have to do this anymore. 

I want to tell you that, just recently, you started smiling. No half-quirk of the lips in photographs to avoid chubby cheeks, no smirk - just real smiles which show that yes, you are enjoying your life, even with the extra pounds. I need to convey that life is, against all odds, much better in the future, and that you do have a lot to smile about. You have a husband and a home and family; you have your writing and your creativity and your intelligence. And none of those blessings are dimmed because of the moments you catch yourself in the mirror and see the image of roundness that scared you so much. 

I know you're going through a lot. I know that, no matter what you do, you can't fit in. I know that you starve yourself to find a place with your thin classmates - always more popular, always seeming so confident and easy - and are called disgusting when they see how tiny you are. I know you can't win - not in high school, not with friends, not in comparison to the tall, willowy girls who look effortlessly perfect. I know, I know. It's hard. If I could stretch my hands across the past and smooth your path for you, I would. 

But I can talk to you - talk to myself - and let us know that we are good and will be whole. 

I can say that, in thirteen years, you will have flaming red hair and you will love to dance. You might step on the scale and feel ashamed from time to time, and I'm not going to lie about that - but you will have constant support. You will have friends who say you're beautiful and who will love you for so much more than your appearance. You will have a man in your life who loves to hold you, squish and all, and with whom you'll spend hours debating politics and faith and science fiction. You'll have a beautiful sister who sees you as you are - lovable. 

And yes - you'll have strangers at parties and gatherings who think you're pretty. You'll meet men at the gas station and women at bars who give you genuine compliments. And while that feels really good it's just the icing on the cake because God, you know how to smile and mean it. And maybe that's the best part, the most attractive part, of the total sum of your life and your beauty: happiness. 

Oh Alice, you're going to be happy. 

You're going to get an answer to so many questions, and that answer comes with a price. You'll be diagnosed and put on a medication which absolutely makes you gain weight - fast. And you will be scared of that, for years, and you'll try every diet and still have days when you try not to eat. You're going to avoid smiling in pictures until right about now, these weeks and months before your twenty-seventh birthday - and no, I don't know why it takes so long, and I don't know why, all of a sudden, you figure it out. I don't know why it clicked with me that being happy shows in photographs, and being ashamed does, too. And you're going to be in weddings and see yourself in a new way because you are new. Because you've chosen to be better. 

Alice, there's nothing wrong with you. You're going to be okay. 

Fourteen years old and you don't know that yet. But you will. 

I hope that someday soon I can put you to rest, finally and completely, because while you are a good person you are incomplete. You haven't gotten the message that your weight is not the one measure of your value, and sometimes it is terribly tiring to hear you beg me to stop eating. I can write to you with love but also with a promise - soon you will be able to sleep, to relax. Soon you're going to enjoy food and life and your self-flagellation will fade away. It'll be good, I promise. I will take care of this body - you can let go.  

I hope that with this message, with these words, I can really tell myself that it's going to get better, is better.  I might not be able to see you - in person or in the mirror - but I can feel you in the back of my brain. So I'm writing to that little voice and saying, I love you. And it's about time. 

Signed most sincerely,

Alice, aged almost twenty-seven, overweight and smiling

Monday, December 16, 2013

To the Baltimore Sun

If there's one place which has absolutely no right to judge others, it is Baltimore City. 

And I say that kindly - and lovingly. I grew up in Baltimore, and I'm the first to defend it. Who better than a former citizen to understand a city's beauty and its flaws? Baltimore has always been odd, if not downright weird - I was raised on stories of farming pigs in chain-linked Hampden gardens; I ate shrimp salad sandwiches, smiling at the toothless and nigh incomprehensible wash-and-set dinner ladies at Cross Street Market; I marveled at the opening of The Helmand in Mt. Vernon, and even now consider it one of the most innovative spaces in the city. I got married at Grace and St. Peter's, had my reception at the Engineers Club, and had an impromptu after party at Grand Central. I watched Homicide when I was little and Frank Pembleton was my hero. 

When you grow up in a small city you learn to love it - the oddities, the ugliness, the whimsy, the delight. You learn, here on the east coast, that you're never going to be as glamorous as New York City; you don't have Broadway or Zabar's, the Empire State Building, or that infuriating sense of superiority. What you do have is a fierce local pride. Ain't nobody gonna touch your steamed crabs, your Boh, your hatbox-shaped symphony hall; there's no one in the whole world who could convince you that there's any place better. Your baseball team can lose, frequently; your football players can be accused of criminality; your harbor can smell like garbage on a summer's day. Doesn't matter - this town is your town. It is small, plucky, fragrant, and vehemently not New York.

So, after reading the Baltimore Sun's response to the recent Vulture interview of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, I have to say that I am terribly disappointed. 

Baltimore should never, ever be a place which feels entitled enough, feels superior enough, to speak ill of other cities - especially other odd, insular, local pride-filled cities. We can talk a lot of bull about our infamous northern neighbor, sure, but we can be relatively confident that they're talking a lot of bull about us, too. This piece was full of the kind of snotty condescension I had previously thought was characteristic of that island only - nasal intonations, pitying chuckles, exhortations of, now now, can't you take a joke? That attitude is so out of place in our beautiful city on the bay, because, Edgar knows, we've had it directed at us too many times to count. 

The object of this derision? Columbia. A few sentences in the article explained some of the positive attributes of this 'burb between Baltimore and D.C. - you know, the amazing schools, the median income, the perceived (by the author) blah-blah-blah - but the remainder of the piece was so incoherently derisive as to show how little the author understood of the second largest urban center in Maryland. Yes, that's right - Columbia is a city, too. 

I live here, in Owen Brown, now. And you know what? We are a city. We've got neighborhoods. We've got a waterfront. We've got communities debating about important issues and rallying around our local watering holes. We've got older people, younger people, people in between. We've got PTA meetings and beer clubs and meetup groups and yeah, even some amateur theatre (with some pretty impressive production quality, no Fisher-Price need apply). 

And we do have spirit, and we do have pride, and we have no shame in that. Somehow the author of this piece conflated earnest desires to be heard and respected with a country bumpkin's chatter about the latest innovation in overalls. This voice of egregious superiority gave a name to that attitude - snark - and then blithely and blindly blathered on in that same tone. And it's terrible, truly shameful, that that voice of snark is the voice which speaks for Baltimore. 

I'll have none of that, thanks. 

I honestly think that the comments made by Louis-Dreyfus were fairly innocuous - it looks like she was attempting to speak about the industrial park setting where Veep is filmed. Even as a proud Columbian, I can admit that warehouses lack a certain je ne sais quois. Clearly, the interviewer had formed opinions about Columbia which peppered the piece with the expired ephemera of the perpetually bored. Too bad, then, that that author hadn't taken a moment to explore this place of Merriweather and the Second Chance Saloon and Symphony Woods and nature paths and the message of Rouse - diversity. 

For the Baltimore Sun author, however, I have no such pity. Because people in Baltimore should know better. Baltimoreans should know that they're the first in line for snorting and snark and that they should turn that negativity on no other. Columbia doesn't deserve that - because we are trying, really trying, to share our story and to make that story better. You'd better believe that we are going to speak up when we feel we haven't been heard. You'd better expect more responses from us, more participation, more engagement. Even when you laugh at us.

Maybe we've become the kind of city that Baltimore used to be - overlooked, but brilliant. Shining. Earnest. Authentic. Maybe a bit odd - but very, very proud. 

So, to the Baltimore Sun, I say, do better. Because Columbia? 

It's awesome. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mornings with Snow

I've got a stack of Christmas movies, gingerbread coffee, and snow. 

Growing up, I spent Thursday nights with my grandparents. My parents always had choir rehearsal, so Thursdays were Grandmere and Grandpere days. We had our routines - I would practice the piano, Grandmere would cook dinner, I'd tidy the dishes, we'd watch Dick van Dyke in Diagnosis Murder. Grandmere told me about her family, and we'd do our nails, and she'd show me her jewelry boxes full of treasures. Friday mornings meant buttered toast, or oatmeal, or cereal topped with sliced banana and honey. In the winter, those mornings were also taken up with watching the news for signs of snow. 

Before the internet was what it is today, the only real source for up-to-date weather information was local television. Nothing was so delightful as watching the line at the bottom of the screen cycling through school closings. Grandpere and I would sit enraptured as school names flew by; now, as an adult, I wonder if his years in the school system as a teacher and administrator informed his excitement. After working as a Paraeducator, and watching my parents rejoice in snow days now, I can understand that grown ups want their days off, too. Maybe Grandpere never gave up that thrilling feeling of an unexpected holiday - maybe he just loved the snow. 

I have many memories of snow, though in the midatlantic region, wintry precipitation is never guaranteed. A lot of my memories revolve around Christmas. I don't think I've ever again experienced the peace and calm which was waking up at my grandparents' house after a Christmas afternoon nap, the smell of dinner cooking and snow falling softly on the giant holly tree out back. And there are few moments which can compare to two in the morning on Christmas Day, snowflakes after midnight mass, Grandpere, our poodle, and I leaving our paw- and footprints in the snow. Otterbein's cookies, eggnog, fatigue and anticipation. 

So, it's snowing today. My parents and sister have the day off. I was supposed to spend the day with Grandmere - understandably, we had to postpone. My husband went in to work, but I'm secretly hoping that he'll be able to come home early so that we can snuggle up with a soft blanket and a Christmas movie (or Doctor Who - what's more romantic than science fiction?). But at the moment, I am, as always, sitting on the porch. I've got my mug of rapidly cooling coffee, my choral Christmas station on Pandora, and the hope that the view of snow falling on the pine trees behind our apartment might match those mornings with Grandmere and Grandpere. 

It's a bit cold. But that's okay. 

There are so many times, so many memories, when winter was troublesome or difficult for me. Having an extra allotment of parents led to crowded and sometimes tense Christmases; the dividing up of presents, for example, could be difficult - what things went to which house? Would my mom get to see me play with the gifts she bought, labeled "From Santa?" And Grandpere - he so wanted, as I have stated, for us all to share in Christmas together, but as I grew into a young adult it became more stressful, I think, for all of us. As I struck out on my own, I couldn't shake that feeling, the forced nature of the holidays, the idea that I should be happy when so often I wasn't. 

Now, with my husband, every year is getting better. He loves Christmas, really loves it, and his love has made me want to be happy - not only for him but for myself. I have endeavored to be reborn into Christmas - and now that I think of it, isn't rebirth what Christmas is all about? Whether you're celebrating the birth of Christ or the return of the sun or just the huddling around warmth on the longest night, we are all ushered into a new day, a new year, a new self. Each year I make Christmas better because I've realized my need to be reborn, to let go of past struggle and become something more complete, someone happier. 

As I sit on my porch, writing and drinking cold coffee, I'm watching the snow fall and thinking about all of the good things which come at winter. The ticker tape on WBAL, paper-thin sugar cookies, eggnog with Pikesville Rye, gilded advent calendars, choosing plates and silver for Christmas dinner, lighting candles, dancing to the Christmas Revels while decorating the tree, ruby glass cups filled with green and silver foiled chocolates, picking out the smallest tabletop trees with my mother - happy things, loving things, things done in the cold. Poodles, choral music, string quintets, my stepfather's arrangements, M&M Christmas lights; my husband's cookies, crab points, football, bowling, Waterford crystal, big families. 

I know it isn't Christmas yet - it's Advent. Christmas is a solid twelve days (there's a song about that, you know) and the month before is supposed to be about quiet reflection and preparation. But today, snow is falling, and I have my coffee, and Rankin and Bass are calling to me with glitter and a red glow. And I'm remembering those other mornings, Grandmere and Grandpere and laughter and delight. I don't think it's wrong to celebrate those things a bit early. 

I think I should celebrate them all year. 

Friday, December 6, 2013


If you live in Howard County, you've seen the bumper stickers. 

I'm not talking about the football stickers (an odd mix of Ravens, Redskins, and, inexplicably, Steelers) or the political stickers ("Obama 2012" on almost every Prius) or the stick figure families (moms, dads, dogs, cats, a parade of children with soccer balls). No, the sticker I see most is the "Choose Civility" sticker, green and white, a bit sad, maybe, because so often, we do not. 

Having worked in retail, I can attest that HoCo citizens do not always practice their civility. Driving 'round the mall, too, is an exercise in avoiding those who've lost their civility somewhere between the food court and the parking lot. And, increasingly, the blogging and social media worlds have been infiltrated by those who, if they had it once, have lost their grasp on politesse. 

That said, there are many incredible voices for civil, free discourse online. Because the blogging community in Howard County is small and somewhat insular, we've become aware of how our voices can weave or fracture over issues big and small. What The 53, Village Green/Town Squared, many, many others write - those words become a part of the Howard County cultural landscape. I truly think that the online presence of HoCo citizens plays a huge role in how we imagine this place - and how we imagine ourselves as a part of the community. 

Even so, because bloggers can inform and be informed by politics, infrastructure, community struggles, diversity ethnic or economic, the onus of civility is on us. Petty spats, closed mindedness, snobbery, inflated senses of superiority - they should have no place here within our writing or our conversations. I'm not saying that we are the be-all and end-all of moral or ethical role models - we're bloggers, not superheroes - but because our writing is public we are rightly burdened with the task of civility. We must show what we demand - respect, honestly, kindness, even in disagreement. 

But what of those who read our writing and respond free of that burden? What of those who attempt to interact not with civility but with nastiness? 

In other words, what do we do about the haters?  

I've never received snotty comments on this blog - mostly because, I'm sure, it is a personal blog rather than a community one, and because I have a small readership. I don't write about hot-button HoCo issues - I usually write, as you know, about my individual journeys with mental illness, religion, or whatever impolite thing is on my mind. But, whoo boy, I've seen some vastly negative comments on other blogs. Just today I was made aware of some less-than-pleasant commentary, and I reacted to it immediately. How odd, that people feel the need to resort to petty name-calling. How pitiful, how sad. 

At one time, I would have been infuriated, especially as the original blogger is very close to my heart. Also maddening is the fact that the blog post in question - as well as responses to the negative commenter - was quite civil, quite honest, respectful, and polite. In no way did the blogger rely on the tactics of the reader; she kept her cool. She was asking for opinions in a trusting and trustworthy way. 

But I have no doubt that it stings, a bit, to be denigrated in what should be a safe space. The blogging community in Howard County must remain civil and open - to every opinion, every assertion, every honest question. We enter into the online world hoping to have our voices heard and to appreciate others' - so we must maintain that safety which comes only from respect. 

I've been ticked off in the past by commenters, as I have written before. I mean, sometimes I read a comment and I'm upset by it - but I've learned to let that go, in part because I have realized that people who come online just to be nasty are probably a lot less mentally stable than I am. I have good days and bad, but being mean on the internet is never in my repertoire because, seriously, I have better things to do with my life. And I don't understand the mindset of those who delight in petty schoolyard antics within the comfort of anonymity - who has time for that? Who benefits from it? Does it make those people feel better about themselves? 

Don't they see that it is ridiculously counter-productive?

I'm all for opinions - even differing opinions. The blog post in question was actually very clearly about opinions! If we want to have a rich community, offline and on, we need lots of voices. We need involvement, we need commitment, we even need disagreement. I welcome the opportunity to hear new information, new perspectives, even and especially if those require me to reevaluate my own. But how can I really respect an opinion which is couched in inflammatory language? Being mean is giving ground - taking cheap, personal shots makes your views less valid, in my eyes, because all you seem to possess is infantile pouting and adolescent lashing out. I cannot trust an opinion surrounded by chaotic, juvenile ramblings. Nope, nope. So if you, as a Howard County citizen, want to engage in a valid and valuable dialogue - if you want to make a difference in this community - you'd better grow up, learn respect, and practice civility. 

Civility isn't just a bumper sticker, and it isn't just the way you say please and thank you. Civility is in real life and on the internet. Civility is having some semblance of respect for yourself and others - not lowering yourself to the level of a giggling child tying someone's shoelaces together. Come on, HoCo! We can do better than that. We must be civil, we can be civil, we will be civil. Let's practice that mantra daily - before we log on, before we click send, even before we pour that first cup of coffee. 

And to the haters? All we can do is feel sorry for them - because, by their own actions, their own petty language and limited discourse, their voices will not be heard. And that's too bad. Maybe, just maybe, they might have something valuable to say.