Sunday, December 3, 2017

When Children Lose Hope


Our little city of Calimesa made the news last week, and not for anything good. Thirteen-year-old Rosalie Avila, a student at Mesa View Middle School, hanged herself in her bedroom. She was found by her parents.

This is a tragic story.
This is a familiar story.

This is a photo of Rosalie:



Kids at school told her she was ugly. Her parents had arranged counseling for her months before her suicide because they discovered she'd been cutting herself. They did everything right in their attempt to save their daughter. Sadly, forces greater than themselves intervened.

In August,  the Huffington Post ran a story on teen suicide rates--because they have hit an all-time high and continue to rise. Nowadays, more young girls kill themselves than ever before.

This is a gut punch to me.

I want to blame social media. I want to blame a society that reveres youth and beauty above all gifts, talents, abilities or strengths.

I want to blame the parents of the bullies, but I know that those parents love their kids and think they're terrific. Of course they do. It has been my experience that the parents of bullies are the last people to discover that their 'good' kids are going off to school and taunting, tormenting, and humiliating other kids.

I want to blame the bullies, of course. I want to pull them aside, sit them down, get in their faces with my harshest teacher voice and ask, "Do you understand exactly what you did here?" But... they're kids. They did what kids have done for countless generations. I was told horrible things in middle school, too. "Your teeth are crooked." "You walk funny." "You're ugly." "You're dumb." And I was depressed, though not suicidal. That depth would come later, in high school, when I was fifteen.... All those voices echoing in my psyche contributed, though, I have no doubt.

I want to blame somebody, anybody, because I'm just angry. I'm furious that another girl thought she wasn't pretty enough... thought that happiness would only be held out to the beautiful people in life. I'm sure she watched enough TV and saw enough online and heard enough at school to believe that this is so.

And so she simply lost hope. She was embarrassed by her crooked teeth. Her parents got her the orthodontia she needed, but then she was teased about wearing braces. She couldn't win. So she gave up.

We lost her. And I am so sad for that.

I went for a walk this morning around Mesa View Middle School. I took Thomas with me (because one should always take a beloved companion along when one chooses to immerse oneself in sadness). We walked the perimeter of the school, then found ourselves walking the athletic track, then discovered Rosalie's name scraped out in the dirt in letters as long as my shadow. I stepped back in order not to walk on someone's memorial and saw that a third of the track had been covered in messages:

Rosie, we miss you!
Rosie, we love you!
Rosalie (signed by Aubrianna)

And the last one pictured below. To that one, I say, Amen.



Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Why writers go to Starbucks to work





Because it was windy and cold this morning at 5:30a.m., I decided to write for an hour--or at least try to--and then walk Thomas. That's when the trouble began.

See, animals are creatures of habit and routine. And like grumpy old men, they become anxious if you switch things up on them. Our usual routine goes something like this: I roll out of bed already promising to take them outside/get their food/fetch fresh water as soon as I brush my teeth, etc. When all their needs are taken care of, I enjoy one cup of tea while checking my email before setting out to walk Thom for a half hour or so.

When Thomas gets anxious, he shakes his head and flops his ears. As the time approaches for us to walk, his ear-flopping becomes like a snooze alarm. He's in the back bedroom, and I'm in the dining room, but I'll hear him get up and then FLOP FLOP FLOP FLOP, the ears go back and forth. I hear it, dismiss it, and go back to answering email. Ten minutes later I'll hear it again, then five minutes later he flops again. If I'm not up and putting my shoes on by then, he trots down the hallway, then into the kitchen, around the island, back down the hall to the bedroom and FLOP FLOP FLOP FLOP.

Mind you, Thomas still does not enjoy walking. After four years, we still begin each walk with resistance, me gently pulling him up the street as he intermittently turns back for home or simply sits his butt down in the middle of the road--

"Mom, wait, there's a monster."

"No, Thom, that's just a trash can. Let's go."

"Mom, wait, no, there's another monster!"

"Thomas, no, that's a raven on top of a streetlight. He won't hurt you. C'mon."

"MOM, NO, NO, NO, WAIT THAT'S A HUGE SCARY FLAPPING MONSTER!!"

"Thomas. That's a flag. It's windy. You're okay, buddy, let's go."

Every. single. morning.

Still.... He knows what the routine is, and if I switch it up, I'm in for ear flapping and the sound of his toenails dancing across the laminate flooring every ten minutes.

And that's just the dog....

Purrl waits for us to walk because she knows that when we return, the sun will be up, the neighbors' dogs all trotting around outside sniffing, peeing and barking, so it's safe enough for her to be allowed into the back yard (like the other dogs... even though she's a cat) to sniff around and settle back on her haunches below the bird feeder and wait... and wish... and twitch her whiskers.... (No, she can't really see the birds up there, since she's mostly blind, but she still hears and smells them.)

But this morning we didn't go. There I was, thinking I would just finish that 44th chapter of the first book in my middle grade urban fantasy novel, and I was really into it, my protagonist dealing with conflict on all sides, when suddenly--

"Meow." Tap tap tap.

"MeOW." Tap tap tap tap tap.

"MEOW!!" Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.

The tapping sound was Purrl, her front feet up on the door to the garage, scratching at it repeatedly so that I would let her out.

"Not yet, Purrl Jam," I said the first time, sweetly.

"No, Purrl," I said, slightly annoyed, the second time.

"Seriously, I'm trying to work here!" I said the third time as I rose from my chair and let her out. "It's cold and you won't like it and you'll be right back in the house in five minutes!" Which she was, of course. Which is about the time I gave up and put my shoes on--because I had returned to the computer only to find Sugar Plum curled in my chair. And since Thomas was making his fifth circuit around the kitchen island, I decided I simply had to cave to their demands. 

Sigh. I really do understand why some writers have to leave the house to get anything done.

"Ready go Mom?"


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thankful



Last night I woke in the middle of the night. I felt the warmth and pressure of a cat curled against the back of my knees. I reached down in the dark and stroked Sugar Plum's head, resulting in a vociferous vibration. Another cat lay stretched against my thighs on the other side. I knew better, but like an older sibling who just can't leave well enough alone, I reached down slowly to touch her--and felt her teeth in my hand. She didn't bite down, and I chuckled. Purrl will always remind me that she doesn't appreciate being disturbed when she's sleeping.

The sheets were clean and cool, the pillow soft beneath my head. I lay in the dark, waiting, barely breathing, until I heard the sound that has been the source of comfort many, many times throughout my life in similar midnight wakings--that gentle susurration of a dog's contented sigh. Thomas has his choice most nights of where he wants to sleep. The door to the garage is always open; he has a bed there (where he sleeps when the house is too warm), a bed in the living room (where he sleeps if I have the bedroom window open--because it startles him every time the neighbor snores or coughs or... whatever... in the night) and a bed next to my bed (where he comes to be close when he feels safe). He is never with us when we fall asleep, but he is often there when I wake in the night, and though I cannot see him in the pitch-dark room, I hear the long sigh he emits when I laugh at Purrl or whisper to the cats to move over.

These three amuse me, comfort me, give me a reason to rise every morning early (because how can I not when Sug is poking her foot in my arm wanting food?) and guard me against profound loneliness. I am thankful for them.

Last night, when Thom sighed, I did, too--a long inhalation and exhalation, and I smiled. No wheezing! Nothing rattling around in my lungs. I didn't use my inhaler before I went to bed, but my breathing was clear and easy. I am thankful for that, and I am thankful for my pulmonary doctor who diagnosed my bronchiectasis five years ago and did it cheerfully. ("But you don't have cancer! This is great news!") He is bright and vibrant and funny, and I enjoy our annual talks, which have now become "How's your family?" conversations, because my lungs are behaving despite their disease. And I am thankful for that.

And while I know we live in stressful times with new political turmoil every day, I am thankful for what we have achieved as a society. I am thankful that my gay son can be who he is every day, openly, wherever he is. I am thankful that my transgender friends can be who they were born to be. I am so, so thankful for all the women who've had the courage in recent weeks to come forward and say, 'This happened to me, and it is not okay.' I will always feel proud to have participated in the March for Women this year, to have shown up and participated, even though it's outside my comfort zone to do so, as I know it was for many of the women and men who showed up and marched. Good job, my friends.

I am most thankful that right now, at this moment, all of my children are safe and well. That might not be the case tomorrow, I know; we are given no guarantees in this life. But last night as I lay awake in the middle of the night and did my motherly head count, I smiled to know that all four were safe and well at our last communication. May that trend continue....

I woke this morning (before dawn, of course, thanks to Sug) to brilliant stars overhead, and I took a few minutes outside (while Thomas trotted around, wagging his tail, sniffing out a possum trail) to identify the constellations I know, to allow the magnitude of the Universe to sink in just for a moment (before its enormity overwhelmed me, as it has since my childhood). Then I went back inside to make breakfast for all of us--and aren't we abundantly blessed there as well? The animals chowing down on all the good stuff that comes to them from Petco, and me with my day-greeting Irish breakfast tea and the steel cut oatmeal with raisins and walnuts that bolsters me for those long dog walks once the sun rises.

Oh, and just the walking--that is enough in and of itself to be thankful for. The Sesamoiditis I had a year ago is mostly gone--or relieved enough for me to walk as far as I want with Thom and not even think of it. The torn ligament in my left foot is healed. The SIJD in my right hip has not been an issue of late, so my level of chronic pain is way, way down.

As I write this, it's almost bedtime. The front door is open, and a cool breeze is wafting in. It's time for Thom's Last Chance Outside opportunity. Then he gets his Greenie (his favorite part of the day) and retreats to his garage bed to chew it up and, I hope, contemplate what a good boy he is. The girls have already wandered off to the bedroom; I'll have to relocate someone (gently, if it's Purrl) in order to get in bed with a good book. When I switch off the light, I will resist thinking about what happened in the news today, and I will begin to count again the many blessings in my life. Really, though, they are countless.


Saturday, November 4, 2017

Wherein I applaud my new hero, Cady Mansell


This is my sister, Peg, on the day of her First Holy Communion at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Long Beach, California, circa 1960. (I spent a couple of hours looking for a photo of me in a similar dress--or probably this same one, as I often wore her hand-me-downs--but couldn't find one. There is also no photo of my baptism--but don't get me started on all that because it would make for an entirely separate and very long blog post.)



And this is my new hero, Cady Mansell, wearing the outfit she planned to wear on the day of her First Holy Communion at St. John the Evangelist church. Isn't it stunning? Isn't she amazing? Are you not crying tears of joy for her that she was raised by a mom who clearly said, "Sure! Wear what you want! Be who you want to be!"? I am. Cady is me. I am Cady. Well, yes, 55 or so years ago, but still.... Oh, how I would have loved to take my First Holy Communion wearing something as stylish and non-gender-conforming as that incredible pantsuit Cady is wearing. Anything but the itchy, uncomfortable, so-not-me, Why-does-this-look-like-a-bridal-gown? dress I had to wear. My legs were always cold. My legs are still cold!

Sadly, Cady missed out on that special day--because she was not allowed to take her First Communion--because she wasn't wearing a dress. (You can read that full story here.)

For the love of Mary and all the saints that are holy, are you kidding me, parish priest? You denied her communion?!? Because her legs were encased in fabric instead of being barely covered by a dress? Come on! Give me the scriptural proof text for that outrageous mandate! But you can't, can you? There isn't one.

It is not my intention here... at this time, anyway... to attack the Catholic Church. It's not about a church or a religion. It's about a man who purports to be a holy man, connected to a higher authority, but uses that position to dictate what is and is not "feminine" (his word, not mine). Feminine? You think you know what God intended "feminine" to be, Father Clueless? You think that word only encompasses women who wear dresses? How very, very sad.

But let's not focus on the negative. Let's look again at the positive example of Cady and her mom, who are part of a new generation, a generation of individuals who have the courage to be who they are (Yes! Go, Cady girl!) and to express themselves in the style that fits their own personal identity--without conforming to some idea of a societal norm.

I am sixty-three years old. But let me tell you, Cady is an inspiration to me, and I have no doubt she is an inspiration to girls (and boys) across the country to simply be the person they were born to be. Period. Without applying labels of any kind. What a rock star she is! And a smartly dressed one, at that! 

Here's one more photo of Cady... on a different day... in a different style... because, again, it's all about being who we really are... on any given day:



Friday, October 27, 2017

Where Predators Lurk




"And will Thomas protect you?" my sweet friend Ann asked when I told her Thom and I had walked the perimeter of the cemetery next door at dawn. I laughed--not at her concern, certainly, but at the thought of Thomas getting all dog-tough and growly up in some cretin's face. Ann's concern was very real; she has a dear friend who was out alone and was assaulted.

I'm pretty sure Thomas would never be protective in an aggressive way, but I'm always conscious of where I am and my surroundings. Except for the dead, no one's much in the cemetery at 6:30a.m. And if someone were, I'd see him long before he had a chance to get close to us.

The truth is, though, in those moments walking with Thomas in the cemetery or in the quiet of the country, a mile from the road, I am the least on my guard. I've never felt the presence of danger in those times. Because I've only ever been assaulted or harassed in broad daylight in public places.

SeaWorld, for example. On a glorious summer day that had been nothing but fun for me and my children, I stood, both hands holding a kid's hand, in one of those underground tunnels that make you feel like you're inside an aquarium. We were completely focused on watching the beautiful sea creatures. Out of the darkness, a man's figure loomed, pushed past me--and groped my chest. I never saw his face or any features, not even his clothes. If I had, I would have chased him down. But he disappeared into the crowd of people behind me. His attack was strategically planned and perfectly executed. I was powerless to respond. I didn't even report it. My kids never knew it happened.

Then there was the time I'd gone to the emergency room of a county hospital with a severe bladder infection. I was five months pregnant. The doctor--or intern--hell, he could've been the janitor for all I know--who came into the room pulled the hospital gown from my shoulders, leaving me uncovered down to my waist. He proceeded to simply sit and gaze at my chest, finally running his hand along my breasts for no apparent reason, all the while talking matter-of-factly about prenatal care. I reminded him that I was there for a bladder infection. He tossed me a eerily smug smile that I'll never forget and left the room. I was eighteen, an inexperienced, naive teenager who was simply baffled by his behavior. It took a few years for me to realize exactly what had been going on.

Years later, when I'd been diagnosed with malignant melanoma, I sat in an exam room with two doctors and a close male friend. As the "specialist" described the surgery he might have to perform on my leg to fully excise the cancer, he reached over and slid his palm under my hip, cheerfully fondling my right buttock as he explained the procedure. Later my friend would tell me how uncomfortable it had made him. "Oh," I replied, "me, too," and then I slipped back into the trance I'd been in since I'd been told days earlier I might have a life-threatening illness. To my great relief, a second biopsy ruled out melanoma. When I could think clearly, I considered all the things I could have/should have said to the pervy doctor. But by then it was too late.

And let me tell you, arrogant, privileged men in positions of power or authority do this kind of shit all the time. And what do women do? Usually nothing. I have said this before on this blog, and will say it again here: For those who are thinking, "You should have said something," you've clearly never had a similar experience. Those who have know that our initial reaction is usually shock and disbelief. Then we question. ('Wait--did he just run his hand across my chest for no reason?') Honestly, by the time we make sense of it, the moment has passed. Predators know this. They are extremely subtle in what they do. (Consider the accusations against Bill Cosby. Or not so subtle--Consider the accusations against Harvey Weinstein.) That's how they continue to get away with it. And if women complain? It becomes "a misunderstanding." And you only need to hear the droning tone of a law enforcement officer remark, "Well, it's he said/she said" to know that no one is going to pursue the perpetrator.

And don't even get me started on the sexual harassment that occurs in public....

There was the new principal who, when I introduced myself, put his arm around my shoulders and told the student I was with he intended to "fire" me as the school newspaper advisor. When I called him on it in private, his response was, "I didn't grope you, did I?"

Twice I had male colleagues offer "hugs" in the hallway outside my classroom, only to lean in and whisper in my ear about being willing to "help" with any "needs" I might have since I'd been single for so long. Both men were married and, to my knowledge, still are, to the same women. I'd always thought the "I know you have needs" line was a creepy joke until I'd been single awhile. And it didn't take long....

A few months after my divorce, a "brother" from my former church called to encourage me to come back to church, to "stop screwing around" (because my husband had announced that we had separated due to infidelity on my part, which, I assured him, was not true), and that, by the way, if I had "unfulfilled needs" I should seek him out and he would "take care of" me. "I think you know what I mean," he said. My daughter used to babysit for this man and his wife. They're still married, and they're still attending church together.

All in all, I've been lucky. I've never been assaulted or harassed by one of my favorite teachers, as several of my friends have. I've never been injured by a man's assault as other friends--and family members--have been.

My friend Bob has told me that I "maintain an aura of 'Get away from me.'" This may be true; I do feel nowadays as if I'm constantly on my guard. But only when I'm in large crowds or around strangers. When I walk alone out in the hills, I have little fear. Wild creatures are far more predictable than humans.

But Ann, I do promise I will always be careful, and I will always have my wits about me, and I may or may not carry a switchblade in the pocket of my cargo pants.

Monday, October 16, 2017

When Men Behave Badly


Quick background: I live in a mobile home park. (No, not like that--a really nice one with plenty of green space, two swimming pools, a fitness room, a library and a dog park.) A mobile home park is like a small town--a really tiny small town. Fewer than a thousand people live here. If I sneeze in the morning, my neighbor a half mile away will call in the evening and ask if I've been sick. You get the idea.

So this happened:

Last week my neighbor--Man A--allowed me to park my truck in front of his home for a day while my street was being repaved. That evening, he called to tell me his buddy--Man B--had stopped by to tell him this:

'You must be feeling pretty good--ha ha ha--since you spent the morning getting laid--ha ha ha--I saw Kay's truck in front of your house all day.'

Man A found this humorous and laughed as he shared it with me--until I told him "That's not funny" in a tone so flinty you could've started a fire with it. We went on to have a brief discussion on why it's not appropriate for a man who has never met me to talk about me as if I'm a whore.

See, we all know that this is--What did the President call it?--"Guy talk" or "Locker room talk." Giving it a testosterone-spiced name does not give it credence or respectability, and it does not excuse it.

In cases like this, women face the same universal dilemma that they always do when dealing with sexual inappropriateness or harassment: If we speak out against the source, we suddenly become "a bitch" or "psycho" or "the psycho bitch from hell."

But hey, I don't care what Man B thinks of me. He's already demonstrated that he's not a nice man. I've got nothing to lose in confronting him, right?

So I waited.

And tonight, I saw him sitting in his golf cart with his cute little Pomeranian in his lap, talking to another neighbor. So I parked my truck across the street and strolled over. The conversation went like this:

Me: Hi. We've never been formally introduced. I'm [Man A's] friend, Kay Murphy.

Man B: Oh, yeah, I know who you are. I see your truck around....

Me: Mm hmm. I just wanted to let you know that I'm a pretty nice person--

Man B: Oh, yeah, [Man A] says you're a real nice lady--

Me: So I don't really appreciate being talked about as if I'm a whore.

At this point, for a moment or two, the conversation got very loud. Man B used a technique that people sometimes use when they don't want to hear or accept or take responsibility for something you're confronting them with: THEY BEGIN TO TALK VERY LOUDLY. Which is what he did, raising the volume each time I tried to speak until I quite firmly but calmly said, "Please let me finish talking." And with a wave of the hand, he shut up.

Which gave me the opportunity, in a few sentences, to explain that, while he may have been joking with his pal, he had no right to speak about me in such a disrespectful way, especially since he'd never even met me. And that, yes, I realize he might think of it as "guy talk," in the same way our President does, but that doesn't make it any more appropriate.

And that is the point at which he finally said, "Geez, [Man A] and me was just talkin' but now I feel bad about what I said." I took that as an apology--or as close to one as I would get. I stepped forward, reached out my hand to shake his, thanked him, and told him that now when I see him I can wave and say hello "as if we're friends" (which we are certainly not and never ever will be, but still--we live in this tiny community...).

If you're a woman, you're probably cringing and nodding as you read this, because you've had similar experiences. If you're a man--and you haven't had a wife or a mom or a sister describe similar experiences and how men can make us feel like we're pox-ridden alley whores for their own amusement--let me just say that you need to stop and think about the impact of what you're mouthing off about.

As for me, I drove away feeling proud of myself, and definitely stronger as a woman.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Wherein my childhood dream is--almost--realized


That's my Cub Scout handbook. Not because I once was in the Cub Scouts (oh, how I wish!), but because I saw it at a yard sale and bought it.

This week the Boy Scouts of America announced that girls would be allowed to join. In reading some of the news and editorial pieces about this proclamation, I learned that some Boy Scout troops have been allowing girls to join for years--for decades, some of them.

WHAT?!?

I am so, so happy for all the like-identifying young girls who are eager to go on those camp-outs and attend those rallies and, most important, get started on that prestigious Eagle Scout status.

And I am so sad and bitter that it has taken this long.

Seriously, what is the deal with all this gender isolation agenda?

And by the way, yes, yes, I know many modern-day Girl Scout troops do many of the wonderful things Cub Scout and Boy Scout troops do, such as hiking and camping, but they certainly did not in the 1960's when I wanted to join. And can I just be totally honest here? As a young girl, I didn't want to hang out with other girls. At all. Ever. I never played with dolls--I found it creepy. (It's a dead baby, after all, isn't it?) Playing "dress up" was like trying on really ugly clown costumes. (No. Just... no.) I didn't have the patience to sit and color in a book for hours (though I could sit somewhere quietly for long stretches putting words on a page, but that's an entirely different activity, isn't it?). I never understood the concept of "playing house," because the entire reason I wanted to play outside (with my male friends) all day every day was to get away from the chores and dust and drudgery of all that.

Plus I wanted to climb trees and dig in the dirt and plant things and play Cowboys and Indians and play with any toy with wheels made by Tonka--bonus points if the thing had winches or pulleys or sirens or a backhoe. 

Mind you, I was not what would be characterized as a healthy, outdoorsy kind of kid. I was a tiny, underweight thing with poor vision, malformed lungs, no muscles, and a constantly sniffling nose. But that didn't stop me from wanting desperately to go on fishing trips (never the hunting trips) with my dad, or to go camping or exploring. (Kind of like the kinds of things I like to do now--but no still no fishing.)

Alas, I was not allowed to go. "You're a girl. Girls don't do that sort of thing" still rings in my ears.

In the fifth grade, I tried joining the Girl Scouts. I barely survived a single meeting with my dignity intact. For that abysmal, torturous hour, we sat in the elementary school cafeteria with bars of Dove soap, pink netting and sequins spread on the table before us, our goal being to somehow transform all that girly stuff into a lovely gift for our moms. Dear Jesus, get me through this hour somehow and I promise I will never, ever be unfaithful to my true identity ever again, amen, I prayed.

So I hounded my mom for a year or two to let me join the Boy Scouts, to no avail. (By then, my dad had passed, but he would have said no, too.)

And so, yeah, if you know me well (or follow this blog on a regular basis), you know that I spend just about every spare hour of my life making it up to myself by roaming in the woods, hiking, going exploring and having similar adventures.

Label me as you will--tomboy, androgynous, gender fluid--this is who I am. No shame--I had enough of that as a child, so don't even bring it now. I'll cut you (not with my really cool Boy Scout pocket knife with the letters BSA right there on the handle, but with my words).

We are fifty years gone from my childhood, and still there is (shockingly) push back on the BSA allowing those-identifying-as-female to join--even from the GSA (of all people!). FOX News ran a story three days ago entitled "Eagle Scout: RIP Boy Scouts of America. You were great for 100 years." Because apparently folks still believe that once girls join a club, they ruin everything.

Please, America, I implore you on behalf of all the little Kays out there, whether identifying as "male" or "female" or somewhere in between (You know "Kay" is both a "boy's" and a "girl's" name, right?), to cast aside this ridiculous gender separation agenda and simply let kids choose. Girls and boys who want to play dress up and rock the (dead) baby will do so. Girls and boys who want to learn how to build a campfire and catch a lizard and operate the manual transmission on a Hemi-powered dually will do so. Trust me. Dear god, please trust me--you don't have to tell them which gender to choose. They already know what they are.