Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Joy of Movement.

You're an ambitious young lady. I smiled and savored the phrase a few seconds before replying. It had come from the old lady who lives in the white stone should've-been-a-garage-instead house whose peculiarities extend to an excess of potted and hanging plants on the porch and a white cement Blessed Mother statue in the low-set, shrub-outlined yard to the left, exactly one right and one left turn away from my house

My neighbor is on her porch every time I run, her stuffed-doll squishy body sunk into a lawn chair mostly obscured by her suburban jungle. I'm always sweaty and breathing hard, not because I run that hard but because the hill to my house is a half-mile climb at a 45-degree angle. The Blessed Mother statue signals two things: memory of my paternal grandfather, Dante—who in the 80s poured cement statues, including a Blessed Mother who oversaw the wine-making grapevines in his backyard; and the end of my run, where I lift my shirt to wipe my sweaty forehead, consequently revealing a slightly protruding swatch of extra skin, a two-time c-section hangover. Current trend in feminism would urge me to hashtag flourishinmotherhood because this body grew two humans. While I appreciate the sentiment, I can't abide. Hashtag perfectionismprevails.
I told Blessed Neighbor that running keeps me young (although my knees would say that's fiction). Her answer, "I'm too old to be young," was quick and warm. It reminded me of my Nanni—that's the NAH-knee of Italian grandmothers—who once told me, "I suffer from CRS: Can't Remember Shit," which was endearing owing that Nanni almost never cursed. A bad word coming from my neighbor would surely have a similar effect. I told her she'd earned her oldness, she said thank you, and I inhaled, exhaled my way up the last small hill before home, where my semi-tough-looking dog was anxiously waiting by the door, which is what he does even when he's not alone in the house. Private Joker is obsessed with me. I take it as a compliment. 

Runners are a serious lot. They know which shoes will correct overpronation and when to pause for a protein-gel pack; they know exactly how fast their mile is and how much faster they need it to be. I've never been a runner, just a girl who felt like running for 18 years. 

When I was 16, I traded cheerleading and gymnastics for dumbbells and step aerobics. Following an upbeat, thong-unitard-clad instructor in a stuffy room on days and times set by someone who was not me eventually lost its appeal and gave way to a natural bond with the open air and solitude of running. To whose science do I owe this urge? There's Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon in the 1950s who introduced the notion that a habit is formed in 21 days. On that and similar subjects, he wrote a best-selling book called Psycho-Cybernetics, which sounds more like a current-day internet nightmare than a best seller penned during the decade when America was great (unless you count cognitive dissonance). Or there's the research of the team led by scientist Phillippa Lally (say it ten times fast and it'll sound like an underwater aria), who concluded a habit takes two to eight months. Their efforts are presumably for the sake of helping people do things like quitting smoking and starting exercising. My own science tells me that "habit" is an easy label to account for forces immeasurable, sparks that ignite within us as a result of experience and a little bit each of effort and luck. 

At age 38, increasingly achy joints and a stroller with an ever-growing load pushed me, begrudgingly, to finally give up running. Two years later, the ocean urged our reunion. A month after my 40th birthday, through the heat of seven August mornings, I ran. Bare feet in the sand. Knees and hips whining in protest. Head and heart in harmony. My beloved ocean is always ripe with metaphor, this year no less as my runs alongside the rising and tumbling waves mimicked, in far more beautiful form, the push and pull of pleasure and pain.  

This summer reunited me with another a long-lost habit: a friend. We met when I was a 23-year-old college junior and she was a 19-year-old soon-to-be single mom. She could be hard to know. Me too. After our last sparring session and three years of not speaking, I reached out and anxiously awaited her reply, which never came. Another year later, I had no peace about it. Conventional wisdom told me that the answer I needed was right there in her silence, and sentiments from abrasive friends echoed untruths about what exactly is wrong with people like me who are Too Much To Deal With. It all felt wrong. My gut said to try apology a second time. Two days later came her page-long reply. She'd been thinking about me too. A week prior, she had seen me in the county fair parade downtown walking alongside my little boy in his mohawk helmet, proudly pedaling with the big kids from school. She said she wished she could've jumped up and screamed my name like a proud grandma. I wish she had. Inappropriate comic timing was always part of her appeal. In her penultimate paragraph came the heart stopper: You've got serious guts and heart, girl. The person I'd unleashed my worst judgments upon still believed in me. That came a close second to her forgiveness, which I take as a gift in celebration of our crystal anniversary of dysfunctional friendship. For two women who hadn't been able to get it right for 15 years, a permanent parting would be a reasonable decision. Not for us. Not for anyone who knows that some pain is worth the distance.

A man I grew up with ran through his painfor 2,500 miles. Three years ago, Chad traversed the lower United States, from east to west, in an effort to heal and let others know they could heal too. His dad followed him in a motor home and they documented the trip online. Newspaper and television journalists publicized his journey from its origin in Florida to its finale in San Diego and all the way home to the only state fully claimed by Appalachia. Back in our small hometown, I attended a fundraiser organized by his friends and family, chasing after my then one-year-old determined to join the rock band headed by a former classmate being brutalized under the August sun; enduring the heat was the least he could do to support his old friend's cause. Chad endured too.  Accompanied by remnants of a recently broken marriage and the relentless shadow of obsessive compulsive disorder, he found solace in the power of his own body to propel him forward through terrain and trouble. Chad isn't a runner, just a man who knew when to run. 

Science shows that excessive exercise, including running, creates oxidative stress within the body, which can lead to a wicked array of consequences, like cancer, Altzheimer's, and heart disease. I've done a lot of running in my life—miles on the ground and over the topography of my mind. The journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise determined that 19 miles per week is acceptable. My busy life keeps me within that range these days on pavement, and things like making peace with former friends helps keep my sprinting thoughts at a reasonable pace. By the way—excessive water intake can kill you too. I've heard about it happening to serious runners. So to evade certain death, don't be too serious. And to get a healthy dose of water, try running beside the sea.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Decades and Discovery


It started in junior high, as I recall:
But they're all wearing it, she said
(of flat shoes and jeans).
But I am not them.
Should I be?

In high school I was voted Prettiest Girl In School my first year,
and the one after,
and the one after. 

Student council member.

Burgeoning body-hater.

I wore flowered mall shirts and black fingernails.
I chose the notorious new boy to be mine.
He liked my brains first.
This will work.
Not so, said Cheating and Indifference.

My parents hated him yet smiled
that first May and then the next
as they watched him pin my corsage for prom.
In my last school year I would be queen.

High hopes for a high-school royal.

College quitter.
Job hopper.

Revolving zip codes.
Empty bank accounts.
Defiant, undefined dreams.

When will you ever?
When it feels right. 
Why can't you ever?
It doesn't feel right.

At 21 I moved far away from home.
Palm trees and art deco and per-capita
murder rates.

You will not be safe, they said.
I never have been.

One, two, three: The number of times I moved
far away from West Virginia where it was safe.
By the time the hills reclaimed me, it was too late,
the good girl was long gone.

Did I mention Success? She and I exchanged glances
along the way.
Once she brought her bags to stay:
Self-sustaining freelance writer. 
I made it.

Success ran off when the baby came. I was 35 and single.
A long labor. Then a short incision.
People with MD and RN after their names scolded me:
You will be in so much pain. Take the drugs.

My two best friends had scathing reviews
of my efforts to offer fatherhood to the man
with no guts. (Meanwhile, my guts had been
manhandled in a sterile room.)
You are a fool. We are sick of you. They said
without saying.
I could hate their guts. Except I understand what they never will.

I should get a real job.
I should be against gay marriage and welfare.
I should submit to nature's intent of female subservience.
I should stop caring more about animals than unborn babies.
I should accept that my beliefs are wrong because yours are right.
I should realize that by expecting accountability from others, I am denying my own flaws.

This morning, at some early hour or another, I turned forty.
It's just as bewildering and comforting as yesterday, or all the other days I have
woken in my own skin.




Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The trouble with bathrooms.

The wheelth on the buhth go round and round. Round and round went my four-year-old on the couch, lisping along with the disembodied voice coming from a video on my iPad. I'm still mystified as to how he navigated the internet to find it. Sort of. My boy, he's proven to have a brain that outpaces his age. As he grows into a man, I hope that squished up mass of gray and white matter will serve him well.

The boys on the bus go grab, grab, grab. The theme song of my school-bound bus rides didn't embody the innocence of my young son's couch-bound concert. My bus route held a few offenders. As I made my way to my seat, at least one of them would take a handful of butt or breast—usually butt, as that turned out to be fan favorite. It never happened in the mornings. Always on the way home. That makes sense, given they'd just spent seven hours in the hormonal centrifuge called Junior High.

The social implications of my posterior predicament of seventh grade has come to the forefront as I've been reading about "this whole transgender issue" in countless articles and Facebook posts. The gender-neutral bathroom debate has mostly become one massive logical fallacy wherein the heart of the matter has been lost to rhetoric. Everyone is outraged, but few are talking about what has fed this monster: If we are this terrified of male predators in restrooms, then what we have is not a bathroom problem but a man problem. I don't think it a stretch to assume that many of the men in uproar over the possibility of their daughters sharing restrooms with boys are the very men who perpetuate the disrespect and degradation we tacitly accept as part of daily life for women.

If you have ever catcalled a woman in public, if you will label a woman a whore for having multiple partners but will high five your buddies for gettin' that ass, if you accept dress codes regarding what kind of straps should hold up a young girls' shirt to reduce the temptation of her shoulders and breasts but you don't teach your son to be better than that, you are part of the problem. We don't need you to save us.

I wish I had known better in seventh grade. I wish I had been outraged over my body being treated as a buffet. Rather, I was enticed. Twenty-seven years later, I remember how I felt as I wound my way down the bus aisle past groping fingers and ogling eyes: I loved the attention, and, probably more so, the danger. I knew there was something wrong about what was happening, and I relished getting away with it. My perception was, of course, all wrong. I was not exercising volition to break the hold of my protective parents' constant oversight. I was not an unapologetic outlaw. I was a pawn for the reckless boys on my bus. It was I who let them get away. I wasn't the only one.

We have a man problem in this country, and it begins with boys. Like water, this problem persists. It finds entry in the porous minds of our children; it stagnates and festers as they struggle through puberty and into early adulthood. It flows. It evaporates and replenishes. By the time they're grown, some of them, like me, will see our gender-relation problem with clarity. Others will not. Others still will rebuke it. They will say this is how it's meant to be. They'll perpetuate the myths that perpetuate the problem, like boys will be boys and girls should be ladies.

In college I had two boyfriends: one, a sensitive singer/songwriter who always wore a t-shirt under his t-shirt; the other, an overly sensitive painter whose first proclamation of love for me was as troubled as his last. What I need to confess about these two relationships that defined my early adulthood is this: I burped. In front of two boys. My mother was horrified when she found out. Although I don't recall the conversations particularly, pattern tells me Mom and I entered into one of our philosophical arguments that inevitably involves her telling me some thing or another is just how it is and me telling her it's okay, if not necessary, to ask why.  We are taught that boys' bodily functions are funny and girls' bodily functions are shameful. If you think this has nothing to do with what happens in school buses and alleys and dance clubs and in the public restrooms we're verbally mauling each other over these days, then you are part of the problem. 

I'm typing from the comfort of a chartreuse nursing glider, not a pedestal. My history with men is soiled with missteps and too many ill-begotten tears. Two times in my life, a man I loved called me a whore. One was black-out drunk; the other, a mix of heartbroken and enraged. I forgave them both, although only one did anything to earn it. Whore is the weapon of choice against a woman who dares misbehave. Her transgression could be sexual. Or maybe she burnt the pot roast. Or she caught him cheating. Or she simply didn't love him back. Some women are not whores but cunts, a word found less frequently but I'm told is the most poisonous. I've been called that too, most notably by a woman who mistakenly believed she had something to protect from me: "Oh, and by the way, in my book, you're just a stupid cunt," read her text-transmitted sentiment, both preceded and followed by equally petulant remarks, the most important of which were typed in all caps and followed by multiple exclamation points. I did not respond in kind. Why would I engage in a battle I knew I'd already won. If only I could let that last sentence sit alone. If only I could act as if I've never fed the monster of our culture's man problem. I have fed it, but I draw the line at teenage-style girl fights. That happens in bathrooms too, by the way. And it's more destructive than our reaction to it indicates we believe. Women often degrade women because of men who have degraded them first.

Paradigm shifts are lofty goals. Fortunately, the fearless among us—past and present—have disrupted the accepted order to bring change regarding gender, race, religion, education, and so many other aspects of our daily lives. Our man problem is like water, seeking its own level. We can make change be like water too. The way is to live that change and help others see how they can do it and why it's important. I have two sons. How I choose to raise them is one way I can positively contribute to the world. When my four-year-old sourly says his pink shirt "is for girls," I recognize an opportunity to offer perspective and I remind him that boys and girls can wear whatever color they like. I encourage him to be gentle and thoughtful. I let him fix my hair and paint my nails. I will never tell either of my sons that boys solve problems with fists. I will never let them believe that dishwashing or vacuuming are women's chores.  During both of their teenage years, we'll have conversations about respect and about sex—particularly about how it's not a conquest and how it's honorable to wait—for love, marriage, whatever it may be. My goal is not to neuter my boys but to help them find balance. I believe gender is both a social construct and biology in action, and I accept both of these realities in ways that make sense to me. When my oldest son asks what I'm putting on my face, I have no problem saying "Makeup. Girls wear it." Later in his life we can take a fine-tooth comb to the issues of sex and gender he'll encounter. I don't know if my sons will grow up to embody the lessons I instill, but I'll do my best along the way. And here's perhaps the most important part: I will expect the man in my life, their dad, to do his best as well. As a model for two male minds new to this world, his relationship with me and with the female sex in general is no small thing.

Time and again, I have balked at calling myself a feminist. How could I, having a blemished history with men, speak for other women? How could I not. Feminism is not a club for women who have always gotten it right. It's for women with eyes that have seen and ears that have heard and voices informed by experience. Did you know? Feminism is for men too.

Whether you are or aren't outraged over who might be peeing next to your daughter/sister/mother/wife, that's not the issue. What I said earlier, it's only part of the truth.  Our man problem is a woman problem is a humanity problem. We need to raise sons who will know better and daughters who won't put up with it. We need to protect girls and women not from public restrooms but from public opinion.

When I was pregnant with my second child, I at first hoped for a girl. When we found out it was a boy, my cousin told me not to worry, that the world needs women like me to raise boys. That's a high compliment. I intend to live up to it every chance I get. I hope when my boys are old enough, they'll be proud of their feminist mom. I hope they'll be feminists too.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The revolution will be digitized.

I was 17 and hated kids when I got a job as a playground attendant. Eventually, both my work ethic and my biological instincts evolved. The latter took 18 years. I named him Zion on the day he was born. 

That was four years ago. This year on Mother's Day, my father wrote a note in my card, as he does for every holiday where a card is appropriate. I imagine brief, ordinary compliments grace the white space of most cards. Not mine. My dad is the poet laureate of greeting card greetings. On this first Sunday of May, 2016, in handwriting that looks like the child of geometry and kitchen knives, Dad told me, among blessings and expressions of love, You are a conscientious mother. Unlike the fleeting glory left by flattery of the physical, a deep compliment of the inner self remains deep.

I am eight months and four days into my second go at motherhood and six weeks shy of my first anniversary (ever) of cohabitation. Mother of two boys and all-intents-and-purposes wife, that's me. Rewind five years and I would've scoffed at the mere notion of it. Somewhere amidst managing two 37-pound weight gains, two unplanned guttings (aka birth by cesarean), breastfeeding, breast pumping, poop patrolling, single parenting, life partnering, dinner cooking, and domestic engineering of 1,500 square feet, my past labels have rolled up around the edges and lost their adhesive. I remember five-years-ago me: hard-body runner, Sunday bruncher, fierce freelancer, coffeehouse klatcher, pit bull collector. Especially on days when my sleepless baby has left me in dire exhaustion, I mourn her.

What my conscientious father didn't realize as he crowned me a conscientious mother is this: The selflessness of a mother must be accompanied by self-preservation. That is my truth, at least. It is a goal unmet, and daily I ponder how to attain it. Daily, I also wonder how many mothers feel the same or how many don't or how many find it shameful to harbor such an urge. My thoughts turn to my own mother as she was raising me and my older brother.

Fourteen years ago, a Polaroid from my childhood became part of my college senior thesis in a poem I titled Us, 1979. My mother sat cross-legged and held me on her bed, looking straight into the camera with her eyes of ocean glass and cherry-stained hair, straight as truth. Was she fulfilled, my autumn mother, cradling her winter child with the unfinished face which will grow to resemble hers: hint of cheekbone, crooked bottom teeth. 

If I found out that my Polaroid-preserved mother had longed for more, I wouldn't resent her. I would empathize with the dichotomy of desire she probably faced back then. Mothers are bequeathed a legacy of prescriptive orders. We are instructed to love every minute of it, even when many of those minutes involve a lack of rest that borders on inhumane. We are pressed to wear frenzied like a badge of honor. We are given guilt trips when we say we'd like a break.

If we dare speak up, we are ungrateful.

Before becoming a mother, I thought I knew one thing about being a mother. It turned out to be true: To be the mother she wants to be, a mother needs more than motherhood. She needs a separate sense of self. She needs the freedom to both embrace and resist cultural expectations. That is my truth, at least.

Three years ago, when I was still a single mother living with my parents and struggling to regain my livelihood, I applied for a job as a copywriter at a radio station. The interviewer, an aging head of programming, asked if motherhood would get in the way of my job performance. I'm nearly certain this was illegal. As I occasionally do, and usually regret it, I held my tongue in order to continue the discussion. What I should've said: Yes, motherhood will affect my job. Deeply, and often. I will decide how I feel about it, which will range from exasperated to ambivalent to joyful, and I will not justify any of it to you. Just like you don't justify to me why you have a ponytail that looks like you hacked it off the ass of an emaciated mule. Bitten tongue or not, "radio copywriter" is not on my resume. 

Yesterday was the Sunday after Mother's Day. My oldest son was visiting his grandparents and my baby was somehow napping despite sheets of blazing sunlight sneaking into my bedroom through three oversized windows dressed only in white wooden blinds. My boyfriend with the textbook sexy mouth grinned as he watched me typing and asked if I was blogging about how awesome he is. Now I am. I have a thoughtful, selfless, smokin' hot partner. Still, at times I have visions of growing horns and escorting him to the pits of Hell, but then I remember I haven't chosen to leave as I'm free to do, so I must want to keep him. I'm told this is normal.

I've experienced pregnancy as a single woman and with a devoted partner. The outcome of my personal social experiment is not surprising, at least not to me: The expectations of a mother are all encompassing, no matter what. Last week, my hair stylist jokingly told me the feminists screwed us by fighting for our right to have it all. Now here we are, having it all, and we don't even get the chance to pee in peace. What that theory is missing is the fact that even if we didn't have it all, we'd never get to pee alone. Motherhood is unfathomable love and immeasurable responsibility. Why should we fear our feelings about it? We can love our children to the deepest abyss of our souls and yet have days where we wish we could run away. We can have moments where our children are so precious that it's hard not to nibble on a chubby chin or a button nose (what? don't you?) and yet an hour later we will collapse in tears over the unfairness of our role. We can be dedicated to giving our kids attention, education, healthy meals, and memorable activities and then despair over having to scrounge for leftover minutes to meet our own needs. 

As mothers, we often hear about our grandmothers who worked from dawn till dusk to care for the family. Grandma never complained or needed a day off, we're told. We are told these things by women who followed Grandma's footsteps of self-effacement. Each time I hear tales of strong-as-steel women past, I wonder: Did anyone ever ask Grandma if she wanted more? Did anyone ever tell Grandma that her individuality mattered? That it was okay to feel overwhelmed? That it was okay to ask for a break?

We are not ungrateful for venting. We are not weak for wanting a break. We are not warriors or superhuman. We love our children beyond the bounds of language. Stop telling us we can't love ourselves too. 
I was 38 and new to commitment when I chose the role of life partner and mom of two. As I've learned, motherhood is evolution. It's revolution too. Raise your fists, moms.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Five wide grins and a joker.

I met two boys last Saturday. Each was cute and friendly. One was an easy going sweetie; the other, a high-energy prankster. I learned that both of them had conquered very trying times, and I marveled at how well they were doing. I respected them. I fell a little bit in love with each of them. They were both my kind of guy: the underdog.

In fact, they were dogs. Cherry and Johnny were former fighting dogs saved from a wretched life with Michael Vick, and I got to know them in the documentary The Champions. 

Matt and I chose the film for our stay-at-home date night last Saturday. From our Netflix watchlist, we watched the cover art pass by: The Revenant, a documentary on Tower Records, the Amy Winehouse story, and some DeNiro or Pacino movie with a lot of vowels in the title. As Matt scrolled, The Champions was about to disappear into the left-hand side of the screen. I knew I'd be no kind of pit bull advocate if I didn't watch it. Here goes. I hope I don't have to see anything I can't unsee. 

While the film played, our dog, Private Joker, napped on the shaggy maize circular rug I got for ten bucks at my neighborhood's annual front-yard sale. We own the rug but not the original hardwood floors underneath—so original that the gaps between the boards gather bits of dust and dog hairs. This house, a "4-gambrel historic home with pocket doors and an elegant staircase," is owned by an astronomy professor whose last name reeks of mafia connections but whose demeanor couldn't be further. He also has a dog, although his is not the kind with a bad reputation. She's a giant, goofy sheepdog with messy, doggy-style dreadlocks and claws that leave trails on old wooden floors. Upon learning Joker has a telltale block head and wide jaws, Not-mafia Landlord reacted as if I had asked if he had a problem receiving the rent on time. Our shy, mostly dormant PJ posed no threat to the floors or our landlord's sense of security. Thankful for laid back astronomers, we are.

Private Joker, like Cherry and Johnny in The Champions, overcame a bad situation. The scars he bore when we first met told the only part of his former life I'll ever know. Joker is odd, not the kind of dog anyone could own. Thankfully he found me, who had experience with high-maintenance dogs. I've raised three pit bulls. Two showed Joker the ropes of being my dog for two years before they started dying on us. Of all three dogs, my third is the one whose thoughts most intrigue me. After six years with me, why do you still cower? Why are you uninterested in food? Why do you follow me from room to room and up and down the stairs all day? Maybe you're missing something now that you're an only dog. I'm sad they died too, Jokes. So sad. Even if you never stop tucking your tail when other dogs would be wagging theirs, I'll remind myself not to take it personally. I'll always love you just the way you are. 

Nearly seven months ago, Private Joker, in his typical disinterested way, welcomed another boy into our home: my second son. Throughout the pregnancy, my determination to avoid another c section was challenged by statistics, advice, and anxiety. These are the usual suspects that tend to plague the desires of my heart. I tend to ignore the first two. The third, it's my shadow. A darkness created by light. That's why anxiety is such a damning affliction: We can't wish away the sun. Instead, we must learn to stop looking at the darkness around us. It's a skill I've been working to acquire for many years. It's a skill I needed desperately as I was wheeled to surgery again after another long, fruitless labor. Thankfully I had my personal sunshine, my mom, there to hold my hand and sing hymns until I miraculously fell asleep before the worst part, the reintroduction of my organs to the void in my body cavity left by an 8 pound, 8 ounce human. In a few days' time, I'd return home to learn to manage my pain with the requirements of everyday life. They call it recovery. It's not just for humans.

"What many of these dogs need to thrive isn’t rehabilitation at all, but time to recover." —championsdocumentary.com.

With multiple scabs and wounds, Private Joker was in recovery when he first came to live with me. Almost six years later—when loud sounds or the rumble of the clothes dryer or sudden movements send him scrambling—I wonder if he's still burdened by his past. It could be that he's not and that he's just a sensitive guy. I'll never know. What most matters is that with the help of me and his two canine mentors, Kaiser and Phaedra, he gained confidence, and how proud he makes me when his behavior belies that miserable pit bull mythology. Recovery came with time and in varying degrees for Cherry and Johnny too, and for all the dogs unlucky enough to have crossed paths with Michael Vick—the ones lucky enough to come out alive, that is.

In The Champions, filmmaker Darcy Dennet gave the audience both a visceral and visual pleasure. Following five of the dogs from rescue through adoption, the film leaves mostly absent the despicable back story of Vick's fighting ring. Instead of the darkest pits of human behavior, there is light in the resilience of these dogs with the world's widest smiles. Through interviews, voice-over scenes, and vignettes of everyday life, Dennett shows us that despite having no reason in the world to trust humans, these dogs do. Some have not only healed but have gone on to become healers themselves as therapy dogs. It's true that pit bulls are the toughest dogs around, though not in the way the dog fighters of the world would have them be.

Whether canine or human, we don't need rehabilitation as much as we need recovery. Pain puts us in a position to find ourselves again. Pain takes us to places both dark and light. How often and how deeply we go to those places is determined by a combination of brain chemistry, self-determination, and support. Along the way, the luckiest among us will find saviors—people or places or things that help the scars heal, though not necessarily more quickly. The path of recovery is shaped differently for every creature that walks it.

Many of the Vick dogs went on to find happy homes. Some, perhaps the ones whose scars run a little more deeply, will live out their time on earth in a Utah sanctuary run by the nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society. The Champions tells a little of Best Friends' back story. As I watched, a familiar feeling awakened inside me, gaining speed from my toes to my chest until I wanted to jump out of my seat. Go now! Be somebody who does something in this world!

I have an idea of what my "something" is, although I feel like my purpose is still revealing itself. As I type this very moment, Jokey is in a familiar pose, resting his snout on my knee and asking me something with his dark eyes whose pink rims are interrupted by black splotches, the kind that cover the rest of his white body in patches large and small. Part Dalmatian? Part work in progress. All mine.

It's hackneyed but no less true: We can learn so much from dogs. We're all in recovery from something.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A letter for Trevor Noah and John Saward.

I am typing in Times New Roman font because I won't chance being one missing serif away from yet another judgment. Little do they know that as I type in my current state—clad in bargain-bin slippers and mismatched pajamas; eyes underscored by sunken-in, darkened half moons; pale face framed by flyaway dead ends—I could fit their narratives like a worn-in camouflage trucker cap.

They are the disparagers of West Virginia. This week, they are represented by Trevor Noah of The Daily Show and John Saward, a writer for Vanity Fair

And who am I? A mother of two. One half of a domestic partnership. Pit bull advocate. Lover of avocados. Hater of weak coffee. Part working copywriter, part aspiring creative writer. Bemused Mountain State native.

I'm not here to deny the roots of WV jokes. There's a lot of fodder tucked into these hills-on-steroids. I'm not above enjoying the humor—sometimes. Other times it elicits an eye roll or a yawn or that look you give when the server delivers your vegetarian omelet with bacon sticking out the side. Where do I draw the line between okay and not okay? When I'm confronted by two too many examples of too much negativity compressed into too few days. When my home state is too largely enamored with a (non)presidential candidate whose brashness makes me want to throw myself into a slurry pond as an act of self-sacrificial revolt.

This week, the offenses against West Virginia include a tweet and an essay. Neither was inaccurate. Both were incomplete. The tweet, belonging to Mr. Noah, referred to that "West" Virginia, which is "creepy" and gives him the "willies." I'll give him creepy. Backwoods hillbillies can be an acquired taste, with their peek-a-boo teeth, bushwhacked grammar, and ignorance of essential life forces like microbrews and Balmain boots. Or is it that they are simplistic in a way most of us fear because it'll take us too far away from our life-affirming nouns: People, Places, and Things that we've been conditioned to believe matter more than plain old l-i-v-i-n-g. Hillbillies know how to scour forest floors for the mushrooms that won't kill you and the ginseng that can bring in a pretty penny. They know how to shoe horses; tell hilarious stories about Ex-lax brownies and barroom bloopers; whittle knife handles out of deer antlers; make a mean pot of potatoes and green beans (high five in heaven to my Grandma).

Not all of us West Virginians are brave enough to be hillbillies. Some, like me, have an indelible taste for the city.  Some are scholars who've exposed shady doings by companies like Volkswagon. Some have written successful books, like Jarhead and The Good Earth and The Glass Castle. Some dedicate themselves to community action. One West Virginian is Steve Harvey. Another is Jennifer Garner

Listing accomplished residents and expounding upon the wonders of hillbillydom won't matter, will it? Outsiders will still savor the easy jokes and caricatures, won't they.

Question: Has Trevor Noah ever been to West Virginia? I'd bet my last tooth he hasn't. Come see us, Mr. Noah. You can still call us creepy afterward. At least then it'll be substantiated by experience.

As for John Saward, esteemed Vanity Fair contributor: His essay, while nicely crafted, was disappointingly myopic. Like I granted Noah his chosen adjective, I'll grant Mr. Saward his depictions. They weren't inaccurate. We have our gun toters, pot-bellied purveyors of amalgam meats, belligerent blue collars, and accidental career waitresses. We have those who think liberals are the clarion call for the demise of civility and those who believe what's missing from government is God. These are West Virginians as put to the page by Mr. Saward. As pages (whether in hand or online) lack dimension, so do these depictions. I know these people, some of them as closely as blood relation. While the adventures of my life—along with an intrinsic urge for critical analysis and revolt—have redrawn the districts of my mind, I haven't forgotten from where I came. It's in that spirit that I defend the people Saward, with creative license, obliquely dismissed. His interviews in Morgantown especially show he was disinclined to explore the diversity that exists here. Had he looked not very far at all, he would've found bright and progressive minds in my city's restaurants, coffee shops, small businesses, and university classrooms.

West Virginia is a place from which I ran like hell during my angsty 20s (and my 30s; late bloomer here). South Beach and New York City and Memphis took me far away from my home state's confines, both literal and figurative. When I returned in my 30s to my hometown of Clarksburg (highlighted in John Saward's Vanity Fair piece), I wasn't fully reformed. In my hometown that had been ravaged by drug addiction and joblessness, I felt frustrated and alienated. So I left again, if only 45 minutes away to Morgantown where the trappings of a thriving college town were a better fit. I made a life here with my two-year-old son and a pit bull mix named Private Joker.  Two years later, I'm a no-longer-single mother of two who relishes any opportunity to fulfill my heart's desire to write. This week's dose of highly public stereotyping courtesy of Trevor Noah and John Saward left me not as much piqued as inspired. It turns out I was one tweet and an essay away from speaking up for my home state and the people who are fiercely proud to live in it. 

West Virginians are what you think and what you see. And then they are more. In short, West Virginians are just like you.

Thanks for the opportunity, guys.