Thursday, February 15, 2018

In the Aftermath: the American Legacy

In America, we simply do not value human life.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - our country is built on genocide. It's built on the persecution and annihilation of American Indians. It's built by the labor of slaves and the industry of mass incarceration. It's build on the subjugation of women, women afraid for their lives and careers, women who, until recently, couldn't speak out about their abuse.

America is built on poverty and on segregation. White Americans take their children out of local schools - instead of investing in our education system and therefore bringing about much needed change, they shield their children from black and brown peers. And those students continue to live in abject poverty, their schools without heat, their bellies without food, their communities ravaged by constant violence. In America we do not value every child, only our own.

America is built on selfishness and consumerism. Nothing is more important to us than our own safety, our own bank accounts, our own place in an economic and racial caste system. We hate taxes, hate the idea of socialized medicine, hate the idea of helping the poorest among us, even as they starve and suffer. And we clamor for guns, holding up the constitution, willing to sacrifice children on the altar of our right to bear arms.

America, this America, hasn't valued human life since its inception. It is built on death. It is drenched in blood.

So why, now, are we shocked - why do we offer thoughts and prayers - when another school shooting shows us the ugliness of our society? That ugliness has always been there. It is where we live.

I cannot comprehend this country's willingness to offer up children to this feckless god of selfish individualism.

A part of my job as a paraeducator in a public elementary school was helping children during lockdown drills. I worked in special education, and it was imperative that I kept my students calm and quiet while we locked the doors, turned off the lights, sat silently in a corner of the room, away from the windows. I remember very clearly the last drill I helped facilitate - I looked at all those tiny first grade faces and imagined the worst. Would I stand to defend them? Would I shield them with my body? Would anything really help to stop a madman with an assault rifle?

Who would these children be, if they were permitted by this cruel and callous world to grow up? All of those students had limitless potential. All of them deserved life, a happy life, a life of kindness and compassion and joy.

And our country simply does not care. Not about them, not about the murdered babies at Sandy Hook, not about the teens killed yesterday Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, not about any of the children in the 18 school shootings in 2018 alone, not about the young people for whom violence is a part of their daily lives. 

Many Americans do care - don't get me wrong. There is mourning, and there is grief. In the aftermath of this most recent shooting, I've seen many people speaking to our need for adequate gun control. I've witnessed newscasters and politicians and regular citizens break down in sorrow. But that individual and collective grief stands in strife against the innate American selfishness, the denial of our national sins, the whitewashing of history, the willingness to refuse our culpability for genocide and persecution.

Our country is built on a faulty foundation, and it crumbles every day.

I want to believe that things will change. Surely we can take our cue from other countries who have restricted access to firearms. We can look to Australia, perhaps, and their reaction to a mass shooting - they did not want that horror to happen again, and they took action. We can acknowledge that America leads the world - when it comes to gun violence and mass incarceration - and say, no. Enough. This is not acceptable. This is not what we want for our children.

But to do that is to cure the fundamental illness of our country, and I'm not sure if we are ready. If it can be done.

We must abandon selfishness - the very selfishness which allows citizens to purchase firearms. The selfishness which makes some schools better than others. The selfishness of privilege, of corporate tax breaks, of private health insurance companies, of gerrymandering, of conservatism. Of ignoring the long term consequences of slavery. Of prioritizing the individual over the whole.

Too many children have died.

When will we open our eyes and say, no more? 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

In Remission

I don't see myself when I look in the mirror.

Twenty years ago, I began middle school, and the flaws I had always seen in myself began to grow, change, manifest. As a child I had always perceived my thighs as too thick - I was at a healthy weight, and yet I felt like I was bigger than all the other girls. When I entered middle school, with all its awkwardness and emerging hormones, my thighs, in my mind, became enormous. I compared myself to my classmates - thin girls who were good at field hockey and lacrosse and climbing the social hierarchy - and felt ugly.

I stopped eating. It was so easy, and it felt wonderful.

Part of my intentional starvation was a reaction to a mental process I could not control - bipolar disorder often strikes during puberty - and part was due to food insecurity and my as yet undiagnosed gluten and dairy intolerances. Food made me sick, and the food my family could afford - pasta, pizza, the occasional treat of Chinese food - made me sicker. As a kid I ate dry cereal out of the box, not knowing that wheat was harming me, enjoying the sugar rush even as my stomach hurt.

It turns out that many people with undiagnosed food intolerances develop disordered eating. After all - who would want to eat when everything makes you sick?

So I stopped eating pizza. Couldn't eat pie crusts, or bagels, or lovely whole wheat toast, dripping with melted butter. I narrowed down what I allowed myself to consume, and then I found that eating very little rewarded a pleasure center in my brain. My stomach didn't hurt any more - and my thighs were getting smaller.

These self-imposed limitations went hand in hand with my insecurities. I knew that I would never be good at any kind of sport - I am probably the least coordinated person on the planet - but I thought I could mold my body into something acceptable, something the popular girls whom I resented and worshiped would envy. I received compliments, and the worried questioning from my parents was nothing compared to the feeling of a thin body, a regimented mind, a controlled psyche.

I was anorexic. It hurts to type that, as if the world will judge me, as if I shouldn't share the method by which I stayed tiny and beautiful and invisible.

An eating disorder is like cancer - you're never cured, but in remission. Since those first moments when I discovered the pleasure of self-denial, the twenty years which followed were full of recoveries and relapses. I gained weight, and I lost it, over and over.

I think that's a familiar story for a lot of women. Diets and meal plans and protein shakes are thrust upon us, and images of perfectly airbrushed actresses show us what we should look like and what we never will. Even if a woman never enters a full-blown eating disorder, she may still slip easily into disordered eating. Our emotional relationship with food is often unhealthy, and we tell ourselves we can control our little corner of the universe if we eat low fat yogurt, or sugar free desserts, or baked and bland chicken breasts. Women are never allowed to enjoy a nice cream sauce, a slice of chocolate cake, even a basket of French fries, without guilt. To be a woman with visible fat is to be rejected by society.

I've had visible fat. I've been what we call thick women - curvy. And it wasn't that long ago - last March I was a size sixteen. Today I am a size six - because of grief, because of dietary changes, because of a need for control.

Being "curvy" was an important part of my life. My medications caused weight gain, and my love for craft beer and bar food didn't help. I allowed myself all the foods I had rejected - I ate potato chips, ice cream, cookies, foods I had insisted I simply didn't like. And even though I was far from the beauty standard of television and magazines, I was forced, by my weight, to see my inherent beauty. I learned how to feel pretty - I had to. To see myself as overweight and therefore (in my mind) ugly would have shattered me.

And now, at size six, I look in the mirror and can't see a darned thing.

Often co-morbid with eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder is a condition in which one perceives and is distressed by some flaw in appearance. For those with eating disorders, that can translate into an obsession with body fat and weight. And for me, it means that I cannot honestly see myself. When I was 118 pounds, I told my mother that I was Rubenesque. I really looked at my skinny frame and thought I was gigantic.

This has been the most lasting symptom of my former anorexia - I am not obsessed with body fat, but I am an unreliable narrator in my own story. No matter my weight, no matter my measurements, I cannot truly see myself. I am always twelve years old, learning how to restrict my food, and I am always 27, eating whatever I pleased. I don't know how to break through the cloud of falsehoods - when I see pictures of myself, I am shocked.

And yet the years of being overweight have helped me immensely, because even if I can't catch a glimpse of my body in the mirror, I see my face, and I feel beautiful.

I have a lifetime of work ahead of me. My diet will always be restricted - I am healthier now that I am gluten-free, dairy-free, and sober - but I can enjoy many foods and eat my fair share. But growing older, growing up, demands constant self-evaluation, critique, and love. In order to achieve contentment, I must dismantle old systems of perception and judgement.

I have to practice looking in the mirror. It's not vanity - I have to learn how to see myself. It may take my whole life - but now, at 31, I am happy, healthy, and strong.

I am up for the challenge.


Monday, February 5, 2018

Complicit

Yeah. I watched the game.

I frequently wonder, and despair, about the 53% of white women who voted for Donald Trump. It seems unthinkable to me that so many women could vote so sincerely against their own interests - these women saw a serial adulterer and sexual predator (not to mention a racist, xenophobic, incompetent bigot) and affirmed, yes, I want this man to represent me. And these weren't just poor women, frequently profiled in semi-journalistic pieces about the working classes and their disenfranchisement, but well-educated, affluent women. Women who look like me.

It baffles me. It angers me. I do despair.

And yet, last night, I settled in with my plate of burgers and glass of non-alcoholic chardonnay, and I watched the game.

I talk a lot about the suffering of minorities on this blog, knowing, of course, that I cannot comprehend those experiences. I'd like to think that I have some sense of the need for justice, for better representation, for equal rights and dignity, but I know that my whiteness, my financial security, my excellent education all protect me from the ravages of institutional racism and economic strife.

I could easily be the kind of woman who cheered, without thought, the gladiatorial pomp and valorous pain of men, our entertainers, our objects. Of Black men, bound and gagged, owned, denied the right to protest.

And last night, I was. 

I am complicit.

I pushed my values to the side. I stand, in theory, against the high risk of injury - I don't believe that any occupation justifies frequent concussions. I stand against the stifling of free expression - the NFL's blackballing of Colin Kaepernick is shameful, abhorrent. I oppose the domestic violence which seems to go hand in hand with this violent American pastime. I am a good person, in my head.

But my actions belie my good intentions. I am, in this instance, the 53%.

I ask myself, why. How could I let this happen? And it comes down to selfishness, and convenience, and betrayal.

I am selfish because I chose to be entertained - I enjoyed the back and forth, the well-contested match, the athleticism of both teams, the triumph and the defeat. That entertainment became more important to me, for those long hours, than my values. And I watched the commercials, anticipating more entertainment, knowing that consumerism is the curse of American capitalism - seeing a shocking and disgusting Dodge Ram commercial and feeling good about myself that I knew that using Doctor King's words to sell a few trucks was deeply wrong.

How many women found Donald Trump entertaining? How many got a secret thrill when he was crass, when he "told it like it is?" - when crowds cheered, when tribalism prevailed, when they wore red hats with white stitching which proclaimed, I am better than you?

And convenience - instead of having a frank, and perhaps difficult, conversation with my husband about why I could not watch the game, I gave in. I put that conversation aside, thinking oh, next season, I won't watch. Next time I'll be better. How many women voted for Donald Trump to avoid such uncomfortable conversations with their spouses? How many put their heads down, pulled the lever, denied their responsibility in order to avoid the cringing feeling of going against a man's convictions? 

How many women have betrayed themselves? Have betrayed their gender? I - a women of supposedly strong convictions - was able to betray what I claim to believe. It was easy. I don't bear the consequences. I am not at risk - I will not be injured, I will not be silenced, I am not a possession of the American public or of a wealthy organisation which cares only for profits and not for the cost of human lives.

The thing about complicity is that it is the path of least resistance. It's so simple, and its simplicity is seductive. Complicity makes sure that we don't have to have to give up our entertainment, to have uncomfortable conversations, to hold fast to our own convictions. Complicity is a cozy sofa and a warm blanket, a cocoon, a wall between us and our guilt, a football game, a vote.

I was entertained. It was a good game, last night, and the team I supported won. And another player suffered a brain injury. And no one knelt - I have no doubt that they were ordered not to. From 6:30 to 10:00, millions of dollars were spent to reassure us that Black lives don't matter.

This morning, as I see the strength of so many men and women who righteously abandoned football all season long, I am shamed.

But heck - Doctor King told us to buy a truck. It's all good, right? 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Confessions of a West Wing Addict

It's the only way I can sleep. It has been, for a good ten years, now.

Sleep has always been elusive - between my childhood worries and my teenage mania, I slept very poorly, often only between the hours of three and six in the morning. As an adult, I've grabbed at every chance for sleep, every method, and nothing works quite as well as The West Wing, piped through my earbuds, a fictional world carrying me into a solid eight hours of bliss.

I know it all by heart. And over the past year, my heart has been broken.

The West Wing is emblematic of a particular American dream - a liberal America, a country of witty discourse and impassioned monologues, of legislative victories and presidential accomplishments. It's a dream of intellect, of compassion, of selflessness, of hope. And I've been leaning on that dream more and more, because the country we live in is currently too far removed from any vision of political integrity. But now, when I watch my favorite show, when I'm supposed to sleep, I feel a deep pain in my chest.

If I praise The West Wing too enthusiastically, I also acknowledge its flaws. I can't deny that its version of liberalism is incredibly white and incredibly male - there are moments which grate, jarring when confronted with a more nuanced view of politics and intersectionality. The show improves in that regard, placing women and minorities more in the forefront, but its roots are firmly in one particular brand of progressive identity. Through a critical re-watching, one can see the fault lines in liberalism - it has been, for far too long, dominated by well-meaning but ultimately self-involved white men. No wonder, I think, that so many people feel abandoned by the Democratic Party - they are not included in its representation, neither on television or in Washington, D.C.

So my heart breaks with this adult understanding - if I understand and own my privilege, I must witness the deep flaws in my political party. But my heart breaks, too, for an America which tuned in and adored the characters who lull me to sleep. For an America which valued liberalism. For the state of America, today, so ravaged by the ultimately inevitable tide of white supremacy, bigotry, ignorance, and hate personified by the monster it elected.

Donald Trump could not have been elected without the bitter vein of selfishness which holds up this country like iron ore. It is that selfishness which justifies racism, misogyny, homophobia, antisemitism, Christian fundamentalism, and tax breaks for the richest among us. I've got mine, says the Trump voter, and to hell with everyone else. 

This is mirrored by the less grotesque but no less insidious selfishness of privilege - a privilege in which white skin is considered the default, when we expect to see white faces in our entertainment, when we choose to send our children to "better" schools, when the injustices faced by minorities are brushed aside, when we debate removing reproductive rights from the Democratic platform, on and on and all the ways we compromise and maintain the status quo. We are responsible, too.

We are, as we always have been, at a pivotal point in the destiny of this country. While a bumbling egomaniac threatens both the limits of sanity and nuclear war, the American people seem to be pushing for something better. Women and men are coming forward to tell the truths of abuse, asking all of us to question our actions, our histories, our own survival. We are beginning to demand answers, to ask for more accountability in our entertainment, to witness and rail against injustice. But it can't be ignored that, while we are undergoing a cultural shift, people are being removed from their homes. Black Americans are still being terrorized almost indiscriminately by the police, and too many Black men are in prison for the same business which is making white men wealthy in Colorado. Abortion is harder and harder to access, and the state of sexual education makes abortion more and more necessary.

And, yes, I have to say it again - people are being removed from their homes.  

The West Wing is defined not only by its liberalism but by the thread of Judaism which runs through the characters and narrative. Many of the protagonists are Jewish, and the legacy of the Holocaust is ever-present. When the show aired, America was on the incredible high of the more progressive 1990s, and a reality in which a president could actively, brazenly, proudly call for the rounding up of the "other" would have been unthinkable. Monstrous. And Donald Trump has made it normal. And we all die, I think, on the inside, because that glorious American dream is a revealed at last to be a lie.

I don't really know where that leaves us. I think of my favorite show as an archive, as a relic, as a fragment of a time when we aspired to be better. That's not where we live, now. We live in horror. Most of us can see it more clearly, and I can only hope that the true liberalism is a liberalism which exists to defend minorities, to defend women, to defend the other. I hope that the Democratic Party can come out and champion the people who are suffering, who have been suffering, the most.

We must be honest about privilege and how it informs the evils on both sides. The time for denial is over. We are in a moment of war - with those who hate, and with the weaknesses in ourselves. With selfishness.

I'm going to keep watching The West Wing. I need to sleep. But I'm praying, before I close my eyes, for a just world which far surpasses the fleeting beauty of a well-written series.

I'm praying for our souls.