Viral Anxiety

Anxiety is a funny thing. I know how it can look and how it can can feel. I have tasted it in a few varieties, from the panic attacks that require Ativan and work-at-home days, to a racing heart, to mild reflux. Somehow I am never prepared for the kind that sneaks up, though: anxiety over something I did not know was worrying me.

As I talk with different people about Covid-19, including my own high school students, I realize that the emotional response to a pandemic seems as diverse as the physical response to infection. Some folks are completely freaked out and have become increasingly agoraphobic and paralyzed by mysophobia, so much so that they are likely to need treatment for that when we are at last “freed.” Others, whose lives remain miraculously untouched by the virus, don’t feel frightened, feel like everything will be okay.

Most of us fall somewhere in between.

Most of us, I think, fall somewhere in between, exercising caution in ways we considerable reasonable. Making human mistakes. Hoping for the best. Washing our hands, wearing masks.

So when my husband told me he’d been sleeping all day, when he wasn’t in the bathroom or nursing his headache, my reaction took me by surprise.

I was so angry!

I couldn’t decide where to send my rage first–at the fact that I would now have to deal with everything in our household on my own (you’ll just have to take my word for it that this is A LOT), at the fact that he didn’t refuse to teach his college courses in person, at everything that has ever been difficult in our marriage, or swirling around our weekend plans (now up in the air) to join the extended family for our annual trip to the mountains.

When one day became two and three, I insisted he get tested. He had one test at a drug store at the end of day two, and on day four of his illness, no results in yet, I suggested he might want to go to a doctor to find out what he did have, even if it wasn’t Covid. He had a rapid test in a doctor’s office, and it came back negative. Then the drug store test came back negative, too.

He had a bug.

I would love to celebrate that (I do, I really do!), but all I can think about is how I could not calm down because he was disabled and I was not able to handle that. He slept and slept, and everything that was wrong in my world was exploding, imploding, breaking down. I was breaking down.

I have never been good about illness in the people I love. When my kids are sick, it makes me anxious. I am much better now than when they were little. When my elder child was wee and caught a stomach bug, it took everything I had not to run away from the house. I am not exaggerating. The first time that ever happened, my good friend Estee was there with her daughter Eva for our kids’ first play date, and she helped me through it. A time of firsts. Neither of us has ever forgotten. Nor have I ever stopped being grateful.

Even now, when the kids are 18 and 15, if they get a fever, I worry a bit more than I should. If my husband gets sick and is anything less than stoic, I now know, I am a mess.

My hair is falling out by the fistful. Despite a low-fat, low-calorie, healthy diet of whole foods and regular exercise, my body holds onto weight like it really doesn’t know when it might need this tire around my middle. I take my meds; I meditate. I make things. I go for walks. I color in my coloring books. I even take naps here and there.

Anxiety has hold of me like an invasive plant, tendrils of a root system winding their way through every system in my body.

Like the virus, it attacks, sometimes without warning.

La Grande Dépression (2020): Shanah tovah!

I think that’s where I am. Not a 1929-style market crash–not that such a thing would have an enormous and direct effect on me–but another kind of crash, the sort where heroes that stand between you and the forces of evil die in the eleventh hour, and you imagine maniacal, vengeful, infuriating laughter echoing lightly in the air, around every corner, from every tall, solid edifice where decisions are made. Saying it in French gives it a little too much drama for “typical” little me, I know, but it also softens the words some and makes them tolerable to my ear.

I am not threatening Canada with the impending arrival of my family; the Canadians did not ask us to come. Nor do I imagine there are countries that really would make us more comfortable. There may be, but I do not know, for sure, and as we are Americans, and Jews, to boot, we are likely unwelcome in most of the places I would consider. What do we have to offer? Skills already being provided by their own people, and offspring who need services their countries are likely providing more efficiently than my own. We lack the gumption of our parents and grandparents that came to America determined to make it, no matter how hungry they had to be for a while. They came here, running from the very ideologies that are gaining traction and power here now. People’s rights are in serious jeopardy. Nazis and Nazi sympathizers are taking seats in our government.

The Jewish New Year is a time of reflection, but it is also happy. New year! New beginning! We don’t celebrate it in quite the same way as December 31st revelers do, but the weather tends to be better, at least in my part of the world, and the forward-looking perspective of hope and possibility is similar. Like the winter holiday, though, there’s lots of room for people to go, well, south. And for me, they have. I am lower than I have been in many years. I’m sure some of it is chemical, and I’m taking my black cohosh like a good little old lady, and have a shiny new anti-depressant. I am not feeling any kind of Rosh HaShana anything.

I wish I were.

I am not a believer. I always felt good, though, dressing up and going to synagogue, seeing familiar faces, wishing a happy new year to people. Lipstick can be very good for my bruised ego. Doesn’t work for everyone. I enjoy inspiring words and thoughtful meditations. It’s easy enough, if you are a thinking person, to replace the word “God” and other difficult ideas with more fathomable ones when you want to be contemplative. For me, synagogue is a place of community and connection more than anything else, which is why I have made it my job to make it a place that feels that way for anyone who wants to be there. The High Holidays, as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called, are exciting, because at least in America, that’s when everyone goes.

I can’t get excited about the virtual experience. I know I should try to be a cheerleader for it, but I just can’t. And now I need uplifting more than ever, because all the things I do believe in and value are slipping away, and people are calling them “politics.” I will never understand how or why someone having equal protection under the law (and in action) is political, or how discussing that is political. I do not understand how saying that I have the right to decide what happens to my own body is political. I am not being political; I am being human. What has politics come to mean? Its definition has expanded into territory where it was never meant to be, and now we all hate each other.

I don’t want to talk on the phone any more. I used to enjoy a good blab with a friend, and now, even if I had friends, I wouldn’t want to do that. I barely have the energy to text and message. We all have our own problems, sure. They all feel a little worse right now. Therapists are in such high demand, their waiting lists are closed. We’re locked in. We’re raising a generation that was already losing the ability to communicate by voice and in person with others; now they go to school virtually, and have boyfriends and girlfriends they date on screens. No one touches anyone, and for those of us behaving responsibly, no one smiles, as far as we can tell.

We talk about “the new normal” and joke lightly with neighbors that answering “okay” to the question, “how are you?” is really the best anyone can ask for, isn’t it?

I don’t believe that any of this is the best we could have asked for. You can close your eyes to all kinds of information; we’ve all done it. I don’t blame President Trump for Covid-19. I do blame him and his administration for their response to it, for trying to be politic and downplaying it instead of reacting to it. Because we can look back at Obama’s response to the Ebola virus in western Africa for comparison. (I am not saying President Obama always did everything right; I am saying he protected this country from an epidemic.) Look, the wondrous, history-making, incredibly strong Ruth Bader Ginsberg was 87 years old and quite sick. She hung on despite her illness to the very best of her ability–we all saw her working out with her trainer. She was not going to live forever. I know we will always be blessed by her memory, as will, I hope, her family and friends. But that the rights of so many decent people hang in the balance right now just because she died–that’s wrong. It’s terrible. It’s politics, but it shouldn’t be.

Vaccines against disease are also not in my understanding of politics. To my mind, the work of the CDC should not fit into any definition of politics. Disease Control–it’s right in the name. When you’re depressed, issues get boiled down to simple terms; it’s this or it’s that. My beliefs or your beliefs. We are a country of depressed people–my way or the highway.

We are just here, in our little house on Rosh Hashana, one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, listening to the incessant noise of neighbors’ outdoor chores and chatter. it’s like being lonely when everyone else seems to have a date, or being deep in mourning when everyone else seems fine. How can they?

Go Fund What?

Some months ago, my kid posted a Go Fund Me. It was suggested by his then-boyfriend as a way to get what he wanted? Force our hand? Humiliate and shame us? The idea, the cause, was not to raise funds for cancer care or for funeral expenses of a friend or to help a family that lost its breadwinner. It was to get money to pay for testosterone shots, because he was angry, petulant even, that we had asked him to wait a bit longer. We will not pay the copay for testosterone-focused appointments (we were already paying for endocrinology appointments anyway), we said, nor will we drive you to the appointments, because we want you to give it some more time.

Like many people his age, my kid has an online presence. He doesn’t spend much time making videos of himself singing with his incredible and well-trained voice. Through a variety of social media platforms, he has created an online persona, one that is sort of who he is and sort of not, someone who is overly focused on victimhood and minority status, wrapped up in the dramas of people with internet careers whose followers make or break them on a whim. But his wasn’t the only persona he was busy creating; he was regularly posting about me—including things that were simply not true, so that his mother became a fictional person that his followers believed they knew. Of course, they all think they know my kid, too.

Before I go into what transpired, I will explain about our desire for delay. Part of it is exactly what you suspect—we do not see the boy/man our child says he is. I am using his preferred pronouns here out of respect and love for him because I understand the importance of that to him and to others. I also understand that in many ways, it is not important that we see that our child is in the wrong body. Of course, as his caregivers, it is also important that we do see it. But this problem, the obvious one, the problem of a prejudice I am admitting because I would be accused of it anyway, is only a piece of a complex puzzle.

I gave birth to a baby who was identified as female and grew into a very “girly” girl, who loved sparkly sequined shirts, dresses that floated upward in a satisfying parachute when she spun around the room, and other clothes I would not have picked for him myself. He loved to play with “girl” toys and “boy” toys. We did not distinguish between them in our home. Even after his tastes grew slightly more subdued, he was decidedly feminine, or what our society deems feminine: small boned, curvy, giggly, flirtatious, delicate, graceful (except in footfall), soft. Huge, dark eyes curtained by long, thick lashes could fill easily and quickly with heart-breaking tears or light up with the smile that had begun with his angel’s bow lips. These qualities remain. The way he tends to crush on boys (he says he’s a gay man, which only adds to our confusion and doubt) looks an awful lot like it always did, like a girl crushing on a boy. All of this may be because there are no real differences here, no differences that are actually sex-based. Maybe that is what I am learning.

The problem is one of maturation. Aside from the fact that the announcement that he “feels like a guy” came out of nowhere, and that he displayed none of the qualities of a person struggling with or coming to terms with such an identity, he was absolutely surrounded by other girls who were making this same announcement. For some, it was hard-won freedom, and I am so happy for them that they found a way to express themselves, sometimes at great personal cost. My child, though, is immature beyond the usual level—at 19 he is closer, emotionally, to 15. He tends to be deceptive with us about many things, from the mundane to the critical. He seems unable to form deep or meaningful relationships with other people, including family members, because he has no ability to think about anyone but himself. This is not an accusation or an exaggeration. It is an observation. He will express sadness if you tell him something bad from your day, but he will ask no questions, offer no words of comfort, and move on immediately to a different topic. This has been a problem for him over and over again in friendships and dating relationships, where he fails to pick up on cues or the needs of others.

If you consider, on top of this fact, that most people’s brains are still developing until they are about 25 years old, then you can see how allowing such a person to make permanent, life-altering decisions would be frightening, indeed.

This same immature young person has two diseases to manage, as I have mentioned in earlier posts: diabetes and epilepsy. He also has some pretty serious anxiety. He has been failing to take the medications for these issues, eat properly, or test his blood glucose. There are serious health risks associated with those lapses, and if you combine them with the health risks of testosterone shots, my child is being set up for some serious medical issues. I would also argue that if you are not stable and mature enough to take care of your diabetes and epilepsy, you may not be in a good place to make decisions about changing your sex, about making sure, at the tender age of 19, that you’ll never be able to have children, and so on. How many of us, at 19, were sure we never wanted to have kids?

So when the Go Fund Me went up, not only did total strangers say things such as “fuck your transphobic parents,” but family members who truly know nothing about us or our family immediately donated. They see us once a year at most, exchange pleasantries, and do not know how our home life looks or what our challenges are or what really goes on between us and our children. They do not know about the parade of medical professionals and educators, and specialists and psychologists and psychiatrists that have helped us to manage what one therapist referred to as my “inpatient clinic.” They did not contact us, did not question for even a moment that our child’s representation of the situation was anything but accurate. They assumed, I guess, that we were in the wrong, and of course what could be healthier for all the relatives concerned than if they just went ahead and gave our child money for something we’d said no to? Something medical that would permanently change his life? I was amazed, honestly, given who we are, that not one of them thought to talk to us first to see if we are the transphobic assholes we were purported to be; they simply accepted it as though it were obvious. That hurt a lot. It hurt my husband.

It hurt even more, when one of my nephews, the apple of my eye, proceeded to lecture me on trans rights even though he really doesn’t know anything about my kid or what it has been like to parent this child for the last 19 years. Of course, he has no idea what it’s like to parent any child. He also seemed not to know that I have been championing the rights of LGBTQ people since long before he was born, and that as smart as he is, he and his generation did not invent the ideas with which we are wrestling. I cannot describe how painful it was to feel the nature of that relationship changing, to feel that he had (unjustly) lost respect for me, and that reading a note in which he’d written he was “disappointed” in me has injured me in a way that will not heal.

We gave in on the testosterone not because we allowed ourselves to be bullied into it or because we came to see the error of our ways, but because the constant tension over it was hurting our marriage, affecting the atmosphere of our home, and taking a lifestyle, for lack of a better word, that was already strained to the breaking point by stress and worry and making it so unbearable that sometimes I found myself wishing I were dead, or better, resisting the urge to get in my car and drive away forever.

Taking off the Muzzle

I am a liberal person, the sort of lefty that conservatives call a “snowflake” and a “social justice warrior,” and because I am a Jew, a “globalist” and an “East Coast elite.” I believe that systemic racism is fucking up and taking people’s lives and livelihoods; I believe that people who say “all lives matter” ought to be hit in the head with a sock full of manure; I believe that the government should not have a say in what happens inside a woman’s uterus; I believe in equal rights on every front for all people of every race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, gender expression, and so on. I volunteer at my place of worship as the director of inclusion and diversity to make sure that my own community recognizes, celebrates, and utilizes its own diversity. I would happily take guns away from everyone (except perhaps those who need them to provide food for their families); I have participated in marches, protests, and social action groups. I sat on the board of an LGBTQ community and support group for years.

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

Now that you have my resume, I can share with you that today I took off my muzzle. Well, at least one strap. I have been succumbing, as a result of the tremendous pressure I have felt to do so, to the axiom that when your kid says “I am trans,” you believe him or her or them, you support the kid, you do not question the child directly, and when it is reasonable to do so, you provide access to medical intervention.

I never actually believed this.

I do firmly believe that is a parent’s right and responsibility to intervene and to question the moves his or her or their kids make, especially life-altering, potentially dangerous moves made by people whose brains are not yet even close to fully developed. I believe that I have been paying close attention to my own child since his emergence from my body, and while I may not know all his secrets, I know my child in a way that no one else does or can.

I have no intention of casting doubt on the identity of all trans people. Lots and lots of people are trans. Don’t bother to attack me, because I have heard it all, read it all, been there, and watched the musical.

My child may well be trans, and I am willing to admit that it’s possible I am having trouble seeing it through all the other issues in my way–mine and his. No two people are the same, and just because one trans teen is a particular way, it does not mean that mine is just like that one. My child has an array of medical issues that complicate and have the potential to shorten his life. It is heartbreaking and unfair. If I could take them away, take them on myself, I would. I can’t do that, but I can do everything humanly possible to keep him healthy, manage disease, medicines, and emotional health.

My child was born a girl, or as they say these days, “assigned female at birth.” This “assignment” was based on genitalia. Later, this assignment continued to appear accurate, as the body in which my child grew developed breasts and hips and began to ovulate and menstruate. Biologically speaking, the assignment was accurate. From infancy, this beautiful, smart, funny, talented kid suffered crippling anxiety. We didn’t always know that’s what it was, and for a long time we worried about odd behaviors we couldn’t explain, such as the way he would freeze and cry at the top of the slide if another child climbed up the ladder to go next, or if another baby or child looked in his direction from across a crowded restaurant. Part of the problem was solved when I realized our toddler needed glasses, and then early adolescence made the anxiety easier to identify.

Therapy, medication, awareness. Worry.

At 15, my very feminine daughter told us he was our son and gave us a new name to use. It was the second name change, actually. The first was a genderless name that we all got used to for a year, and then it was changed again, without warning, to a masculine name. At first, we bristled quite a bit at the abandonment of various religious/cultural traditions involved in the naming of our children, but that seems like ancient history now. We did not understand. There was nothing we could see about this kid that was male or masculine, nothing in his behavior, interactions with others, movement through space, points of view. We had lots of conversations about gender, about binaries. I argued that the position he was taking seemed committed to a binary notion of gender that I could not understand, and he just said he “felt like” a guy. I wrestled with tired notions of gender—what does it even mean to be masculine or feminine? What does it mean to relate to others as a woman?

What does it mean to be masculine or feminine?

We are still waiting for help from him in understanding this. My kid says I don’t need to understand. He might be right. But he has asked me to bury my daughter, pay for medical transition and legal services, offer emotional support, and look out for his well-being on every front (while he occasionally attacks me on the internet). And I am doing all of that. As he is no longer a minor, I am asked to do this all without access to vital information about most of it. I don’t think, in the face of all these expectations, that it’s too much to request that he help us try to understand how one can “feel like” a guy without having been one, biologically or socially. We are asking him to tell us what makes him tick.

In the meantime, I lie awake at night wondering how the medical professionals in charge of my child’s health thought it was just fine to give hormone therapy to a person with diabetes and epilepsy who fails to manage either disease. Did the endocrinologist actually read the psychologist’s 12-page report, in which she wrote that hormone therapy was not an answer to the issues, but only might be a piece of it? The person who prescribed testosterone is the same one who prescribes insulin—the same one who knows that my child rarely tests his blood glucose, has a shit diet, and therefore can’t possibly be dosing his insulin correctly. Which of us will have the first heart attack?

I think the world of medicine is caught in the same trap I am. A friend of mine told me she took her toddler in for a checkup. She is the mother of a lively little girl. The pediatrician came into the exam room, greeted them both, and then asked my friend’s daughter, “are you a girl or a boy?” Bless this mama; she told that doctor where to get off immediately. As she put it, if her child says to her that she’s a boy, she’ll go with it, but why on earth does the doctor need to plant the idea in the child’s head?

Access to puberty blockers and hormone therapies has gotten incredibly easy; the sort of psychological evaluation required is minimal, and any kid with access to the internet can find out exactly what to say to get what he believes he needs or wants. There are so many girls in my kid’s cohort who have changed their names and are identifying as male or nonbinary that is clear to any rational person that something is going on beyond a newfound freedom of expression. I am not surprised that an entire generation finds the prospect of being female unappealing, to be honest, but that is an oversimplification. I am well aware how these points of view, these days, mark me as the enemy. It’s a real shame, because I am most definitely not the enemy. I am far from it.

I left the board of the LGBTQ group to which I belonged because the community meetings we ran serve as a safe space for the community, and even though I am Bi, it was not a safe space for me, and my presence made it less safe for others. Talking about the issues that were weighing on me made young trans people feel unsafe, so I felt it was my responsibility to leave, and that is what I did. I have other safety nets. I could not express my feelings of worry and doubt without being attacked, because worry and doubt are not allowed; worry and doubt are transphobic. Worry and doubt mean you don’t support your child. Speaking honestly with your child means you don’t support him; demanding that he be honest with you means that you are cruel or at least uncaring. Even at meetings that were supposed to be safe places for parents to say what they wanted and ask even the worst questions, there was always at least one Koolaid-drunk parent ready to tell me how she just loves her child no matter what, as if my expression of concern for my clearly at-sea kiddo meant that I had stopped loving him.

I want my child to be happy in his skin and in his life. He can’t do that if he’s dead.

Mom and Dad & Pedagogy

I’ve written about my father before, and as is so often true when writing about someone who is gone, he has taken on a mythic quality. I try not to overdo that; to be fair, my father had some of that while he was alive, too, at least with his children. I’ve written about that, also. I know this is my own youngest-child-only-girl perspective, so if my brothers disagree, that’s entirely fair. It is certainly true that the four of us had each our different relationships with Dad.

My father loved to play with me by rattling off made-up Latin names of flowers and weeds along dirt roads in eastern Long Island, explaining their origin in such detail that it always took me a while to realize that I had fallen for it again. When I began learning Latin in seventh grade, he’d give me phrases to repeat out loud until I noticed “what a goose I am.” One

“He’d give me phrases to repeat”

subject my father really did know was Shakespeare. This wasn’t like the pretend play he did for his own amusement and mine; this was true learned (pronounce that “learn-Ed”) passion for the Elizabethan bard. He earned his PhD and taught for close to thirty years, and his first published novel centered around the production of a play by elderly Jews at a retirement home on New York’s Upper West Side.

You might then imagine his disappointment when, the first time I had to read a Shakespeare play for school, I complained like any other school kid that the text was boring and impossible to decipher. It wasn’t me he was disappointed in, though; it was my teacher. Of course it was boring. It was about 1980. How was some 20th-century kid supposed to sit down with the text of Macbeth and read it cold? And actually get something out of it? She needed to approach the play differently.

My parents listened to operas on the record player in our living room, and I thought it was terrible.

Why not listen to Donna Summer? Or Queen? So my father took me to the opera, where the sets, costumes, and gigantic voices held me in thrall. My mother took me the ballet. My parents talked about court cases in the news and other issues that did not interest me. So my father took me out of school, and we rode the subway downtown to the courthouse to watch a trial. These experiences offered me the most important aspects of my lessons that had been missing—the appeals to the senses that make experiences lived experiences. I have never forgotten the judge asking the man who said his gold chain was stolen why he was eating rice and beans on his stoop at 2 am.

His honor was laughing.

The same was true of Shakespeare plays. What I learned from Dad and eventually from an excellent professor at Hunter College, CUNY, was that these plays were written to be seen. Sure, I had to learn about iambic pentameter. But my favorite lessons in William Shakespeare had to do with who his audiences were, what they did while the plays were being performed, what sort of show they expected, and who was on stage. And what a surprise it was to find that I could follow the action of the play when I was watching and listening to actors!

My parents always drew me in. If I was watching my mother cook or bake, I soon found myself stirring or chopping. I wanted to sew like her, too. And when I went to work with her, I wanted to use all her office supplies, and the ginormous copier that had its own room, and sit behind a desk and look important the way she did. If my father was grading student assignments and needed me to be quiet, he would give me the same assignment to “see what [I] could do with it.”

It’s easy to think about parenting mistakes, flaws, and wish-they-hadn’ts. Lord knows my own kids will be able to list quite a few.

The more time I spend as a teacher of teenagers, though, the more I see how much my mother and father did to make sure I was a well-rounded, functional adult.

I have tried to repeat these lessons in my own home, with my own kids, but it is a different time, in different circumstances, with quite different kids.

I keep trying.

A Woman, in Her Own Right

Why does anyone ever use the phrase, “in her own right”? It means, actually, in keeping with what is right or just, conforming to some principle or that which is due. But it never seems to me that users mean exactly that.

Elinor Burkett, author of Golda, writes, “Golda Meir acted like a man [she peed standing up?] and wanted to be treated like a man. There is no question that she was a very strong, intelligent leader in her own right.” I did not know Golda Meir personally, so I don’t know if she was transgender, but I’d be willing to bet she wanted to be treated as equal to men. And I am pretty sure that qualities of strength and intelligent leadership aren’t limited to men. So how does Burkett mean “in her own right” in this case?

When Barbara Bush died, writer Karen Belz posted a small article online about the former first lady in which she writes, “And while most people know Barbara Bush for her first lady status, many don’t know that she was considered a strong, determined, and witty woman in her own right.” This line suggests, first, that her husband had these qualities, and I am not sure everyone would agree with that, though it isn’t friendly to speak ill of the dead. But why wouldn’t a first lady have these qualities? Why not assume she does until it is proven otherwise? I won’t even say anything about Melania Trump’s intellect or wit, because she is determined that the American public will not know her. So we can certainly say she’s determined, if nothing else.

The BBC, reporting on the militancy of Winnie Mandela’s activism, posted an article that argued, “Mrs [sic] Madikizela-Mandela was a politician in her own right, and opposed her husband’s [Nelson Mandela’s] move to negotiate an end to apartheid, claiming it would lead to a ‘sell-out’ of black people.” Because her husband was a politician, Winnie can’t be one, too, she is one in her own right. To use a term coined by my husband, this is the height of “ensmallening.” One must be able to describe what a woman does without comparing it to the roles of the men around her. To add “in her own right” forces a comparison where none is necessary.

In each of these examples, of course, it is proper or just and in accordance with principles of equality that the women are who they are claimed to be; they do indeed have those qualities, so it could be argued that the phrase is used correctly. But is that what the writers are implying?

Perhaps an example from the life of an average Jo(sephine) would be useful. Many years ago, when I was young and cute and newly engaged, I met some of my husband’s future colleagues at the university where he was teaching. It was a small social group that met for coffee and some talk in the morning. During this first meeting, I was referred to several times as a sort of prize he had won. I was nervous and probably more sensitive than usual. No harm was meant; they were all older than he and happy for him. He wasn’t lonely anymore, and here was this pretty young thing coming to the small town where nothing ever happened. They were trying to be nice, in their older, sexist, unthinking way. The worst culprit was the woman in the group, but her motivation is the subject of some other essay.

My now-husband of close to twenty years was sensitive to what was happening, bless him. Yes, he thought I was a babe, but he also thought I was interesting, funny, articulate, curious about the world—you know, all those qualities that make a person a tolerable spouse. He wanted to stand up for me. “You know,” he said, “Claudia is a writer in her own right.” So then I answered a few questions about writing and whether I was published. I held back until he and I were alone, and then I told him what I thought of the expression he’d used.

First, I pointed out how rarely we hear “in his own right.” If we’re using the phrase properly, there is no reason not to say it with regard to men as well as women. The example I found of its use to describe a man is guilty of the same crime I’ve already described. About his own son, the great musician and poet Leonard Cohen said, “Adam [Cohen] is a great singer-songwriter in his own right.” The comparison implied in the effort to (supposedly) avoid comparison is demeaning. It reduces the subject to something less than adult, and has the effect on its audience of, “aww, isn’t he/she cute? Trying to be just like _________.”

I was reminded of this the other day when my kid was accusing someone of microaggressions. He was wrong; the person was actually guilty of passive-aggressive actions, but it got me thinking about microaggressions and what they are, exactly. However subtle or even unintentional they are, they show discrimination against some already marginalized group, which is why I’d already learned about them with regard to race and ethnicity. I hadn’t yet given thought to the ways in which microaggressions are built right into our language. There are plenty of languages that have sexist constructions, which is why we now have words such as Latinx to address such inequalities. But in English, where we don’t have masculine and feminine nouns, we’ve had to figure other ways to make women not just “other” but less. Every time someone wants to attach “-ette” or “-ess” to the end of a word, women are infantilized. At my kids’ school, the mascot is a dolphin. The girls’ teams? The “Lady Dolphins,” who wear pink jerseys, even though the school colors are blue and white. In 2019.

Even the word “lady,” in certain contexts, places demands on women that don’t fit with the lives most of us live and suggests demure behavior never asked of men. How can “lady” dolphins possibly play volleyball? They’ll ruin their manicures. Growing up, I read books with characters who were ladies’ maids and ladies-in-waiting. Employment for the politely poor. When I was a child, my father always admonished me to act like a young lady; given his upbringing (in England, by people from Poland), that meant that I needed to be quiet, not boisterous; gentle, not rough; polite and never rude—always please, thank you, excuse me and so on—no elbows on the table or reaching across for something, always tip your bowl away from you (except on Passover), no slurping, or any eating sounds, mouth closed while chewing. Hair tidy and out of the face, dresses are always best for family events of any kind. I am grateful for my good manners every time I eat with a slob, but these are manners that men ought to have, too. My brothers got the same table manners lessons, by the way. And women should never be taught these “rules” as the keys to their happiness, or worse yet, the only way to be female.

Female, I understand. But I’m not sure what it means to be a girl or a woman. These days, we understand that it goes beyond whatever equipment our bodies have. Having a vagina doesn’t guarantee that I will feel like a girl or identify as one. When I was quite young, perhaps a tween, I told my mother that I thought my chromosomes weren’t quite right. Instead of the XX girl formula, I was sure mine looked like this: Xx/y. Why did I think so? Because when I was little, I liked Matchbox cars and GI Joe dolls. I didn’t like wearing dresses (maybe because I was made to), I was hairy, I liked playing rough with my brothers. I have three older brothers, no sisters, and a mother who had no interest in teaching me girly stuff. As little and shy and anxious as I was, I also pushed myself to be what I imagined was a kind of a daredevil on the playground. I was crazily proud of my accomplishments on the swing set. I never doubted that I was a girl; I suppose I felt that I was not a traditional or “girly” girl. And I never have been.

I love pretty things. I like to put on some makeup, and I like to get dressed up for special occasions. But when I am all dolled up, I don’t feel like me, and I don’t feel comfortable; I spend the time thinking about how great it will feel to go home and slip into some sweatpants.

My older child, declared a girl at birth (and before), says he doesn’t feel like a girl, and has therefore determined he’s a boy. To me, this doesn’t quite make sense, or perhaps I don’t understand it because I can’t imagine how that feels. I wonder what he thinks it means to be a girl. He doesn’t seem able to articulate it. I’m not able to, either. And what does it mean to be a boy? How could he possibly know what that feels like? And why this binary? I don’t feel like a girl; therefore, I am a boy. To me, this is not a logical argument coming out of a generation that has done such an amazing job of teaching us that gender and sexuality exist on a spectrum. But humans are full of contradiction, all of us. And my kid, who always picked out the shiny clothes, the flowy stuff, the hats and shirts that said things like “Girls Rule!”, this kid teaches me every day.

Maybe, like me, he noticed that things he accomplished might get dressed in pink, might have an “-ess” stuck on the end. Maybe he noticed that the world is still not a safe place for women and resented it as much as I do. Maybe I made womanhood look undesirable.

What I do understand is this.

Just as long hair and makeup don’t define women any more than does a vagina, supposed feminine word endings and pink shirts don’t do much to say who we are, either. And even if a person belongs to a community that sees men and women as equal but playing different roles, there is still no reason to use language that makes women less than they are—fully human.

Memoir Workshop

What’s Your Story?

If you follow me here, you may know that I have taught writing classes for — let’s just say a lot of — years. This fall, I am offering a six-week memoir workshop in the Hampton Roads area, so if you live in Southeastern Virginia, I hope you’ll sign up. In this workshop we’re going to write about ourselves; not our life stories, but about snapshots of our lived experience. A pivotal moment, a day, an hour, an encounter. The way in which we remember and perceive, and what we might understand about ourselves and the world as a result–that is memoir. All you need is a life and the desire to look more closely at any part of it that you can share with others; memoir seeks to share our experience. Diaries and journals are where we keep our experiences to ourselves. You’ll write, read, discuss. What could be better?

Classes meet for six Thursdays, beginning October 5, from 1:00 to 3:00 pm. We have the beautiful, peaceful, and inspiring space of the Yoga Nook to call our own.

The Yoga Nook
927 Battlefield Blvd N Suite 100-1
Chesapeake, Virginia
The cost for six weeks, which includes reading materials, is $100. You can register by making your payment here.
If you have questions, ask away! islerinkc@gmail.com

My Child, Also Known As…

When our kids change their names, they are deciding who they are, or trying to figure out who they are. When our kids change their names, it hurts. We chose the name they were given; it was a gift from us to them, usually carefully considered, agonized over, possibly even argued about.

We have traditions and rituals to bestow on our children the name we chose —christenings, baptisms, brit milot, naming ceremonies of all sorts. We invite friends and family, we might even cater a party. Children get named after important relatives, living or dead, depending on tradition and culture. Their names mean something to us.

After we name them, we spend the next ten years watching the tiny person grow into the name we chose. And somehow, they always seem to do just that — grow into the name. When I think about the other names that were on the table for me, according to my parents, it makes me laugh to think of myself as a Jennifer or an Angelica. These names simply do not, could not, fit me.

Maybe we spend a lot of time correcting people’s pronunciation of our kids’ names; maybe we tell people what it means in this language or that, or tell stories about the person for whom the kids were named. The child’s name is part of the family’s unique history and culture.

When kids change their names, they are rejecting all of those things. They are not saying they don’t want to be part of the family; they are saying that those traditions and history and culture are not as important as being true to themselves. They value all that came before them, maybe, but they did not choose the name they’ve been living with. And now they have grown and feel that it doesn’t fit them — the name has become a too-small hat, exerting all kinds of pressure on the brain.

When kids change their names, they are rejecting their parents or their upbringing or “family values” the same way they are doing so when they leave the religious/racial/ethnic fold in which we expected or hoped them to stay. That’s how it feels. But they aren’t doing that, not all of them, anyway; they are establishing their identity for themselves within the family but separate from the identity we defined for them.

Perhaps we did this for ourselves by buying entirely new brands of groceries when we first moved out of our parents’ home, eating sugary cereal or moving to another city. Maybe we accomplished it by taking what we consider to be a more critical and nuanced view of religion and politics. Our children feel a freedom to explore their identities in ways we never dreamed of, and maybe we have to let them do that even if it feels personal, feels like rejection, feels insulting and painful.

When some kids change their names, they consult their parents, discussing the name’s meaning, the person they were named for, including parents in the process and showing respect for all that went into the name given at birth. But some kids don’t consult family at all. It doesn’t occur to them until it’s too late. And that may hurt parents even more.

Some of us are convinced that this name change is temporary, that the kid is just exploring and will come out on the other side of this adolescent experience all the wiser. Some just hope that’s true. Some of us are wrong, and some are right. As long as we are allowed our own feelings about the change, we should be able to make room for our child to experiment. This is what I tell myself as I try, day after day, to call my child by a name I did not choose. I think about how I insisted on being called “Annie” for a small part of my youth, because I did not appreciate my first name as I do now. I remember that one of my brothers wanted to be called “Herman” because he loved The Munsters. I don’t think my parents felt a sting from these passing fancies. Because that’s what they were. We were still very much their children. It is the sense of impending separation and loss created by the change that is so hard to handle. It is the anxiety about what the child’s life will be, factoring in all the issues associated with the name change — gender identification, possibly sexuality, and stupidity, prejudice, and discrimination on the part of others.

I also tell myself to celebrate having raised a child who feels strong enough to explore their identity publicly, to be insistent about their name and what it means to them, to demand acceptance. These are wonderful qualities.

The truth is, none of this is about me. My sense of loss or resentment or sadness is just that — mine.

A Much Harder Place

“We just booked a trip to France!” people-mother-family-father

“Here I am with my bestie, looking out over the San Francisco Bay.”

“Nothing better than drinks with girlfriends in Porto, Portugal!”

Facebook is killing me.

For years now I have looked at people’s photos, at their family outings, travel adventures, even just fun times at home. And I have envied all of it. Not because I believe that every minute of their lives must be happy and perfect, based on the pictures they post. I know that no one’s life is perfect, whatever that means, no matter what it looks like on the outside. You can’t ever know what goes on between two partnered people, and you can’t ever know what it is really like to be in someone else’s family.

I spend a lot of time wishing people knew what it was like to be in my family. It is challenging, to put it mildly. I have two, maybe three nice pictures of the four of us. When we attempt to do typical American family things, it doesn’t usually work out. Someone will always be miserable and ruin it for everyone else. And who wants to take a picture of that? It isn’t possible to explain my family life properly, and any attempt to do so would probably sound whiny and ungrateful. Claudia and her first-world problems. But I am exhausted.

It used to be that my envy also came from a certain financial unease; we couldn’t do some of the things we saw our peers doing, because we simply didn’t have the money. Now the money is a bit less of an issue, though we still need to be careful (I am unemployed).  These days my envy comes from a much harder place. It cannot be fixed by earning more money, establishing financial security.

When I see families plan or go on trips with their young kids or even their adult kids, I know that will never be us. I think how great it would be, when my kids are young adults, to go abroad with them and sit in a bar or cafe somewhere we’ve never been, toasting the joy of discovery and togetherness. But it isn’t going to happen. When you have a child on the autism spectrum, your life can be seriously curtailed. I am sure this isn’t true for everyone, but it is true for us. My son’s diet is so limited, so inflexible, we really could never visit a foreign country. Certain places would be easier than others, of course. If there’s plain pasta, or white rice, or french fries. If not, he won’t eat.  When he is older, he will expand his repertoire somewhat, I’m sure. I can already see hints that his Bread and Jam for Frances lifestyle is wearing. But other things may never change.

My beautiful boy is fascinated by the great wide world and visits all of it regularly on Google Earth. He digs into people’s customs and holidays and traditions with great pleasure. He learns their languages and practices writing some very complicated characters. He watches opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games (almost all are available online) to see the athletes from around the world and to hear whatever tidbits the commentators share about the people and the countries they’re from. He shares newfound information with us and sometimes gets frustrated that we can’t bank all those facts the way he can. He is terrified to board a plane or a boat, and sometimes still gets quite carsick. It has to do with his vestibular system, the body’s sensory system that contributes to spatial orientation and a sense of balance. Sometimes when I try to imagine him on an airplane, I can only picture that disgusting puke scene from The Exorcist. exorcist

Speaking of barf, it’s not just his diet that is resistant to change. Taken out of his safe spaces, without the items he uses daily, he is thrown off and unable to enjoy himself. Last summer we foolishly planned a long road trip, never thinking about how difficult it would be for him to “play it by ear,” to not know where and when the next meal would be and what it would consist of.  On all journeys, staying in the hotel room to watch TV and order (Papa John’s) pizza or going to the hotel’s pool are his favorite things. He is a creature of habit or even ritual. He engages in the same activities day after day, and does them in the same way, at the same time. And he likes it that way; he has no desire to do things differently. Most people, including medical professionals, will tell us that he needs to learn to get out of his comfort zone, and I agree, but only to a certain extent. I push him to do things independently. The smallest things present big challenges. Last night he argued for ten minutes that he would not be able to adjust the water temperature for his shower to his liking. He was positive he wasn’t capable. But he made a loaf of bread all by himself last week. It was delicious.

I also want him to learn the social skills that will allow him to be happy in a neurotypical world. And we push that, too, even though it’s painful, even though “normal” children say terrible things to him or are judgmental or stay away because they think he’s weird.  Taking him out of the spaces where he feels good—good about himself and comfortable—does not seem anything but cruel. It has taken nearly twelve years of raising this child to understand this. And that cruelty extends to the rest of the family, because when my son is unhappy, so is everyone else. There’s no way around it. The older he gets, the more difficult it becomes to deal with these moments. He’s a sweet and sensitive kid, so he cries, but he also shouts profanities at us, threatens suicide, destroys his own belongings and often things that belong to us, damages the house in some way, slams doors, tries to hurt himself, and gives us the finger. He also threatens to become a Republican or a Christian, and he likens his parents to Hitler and Trump, because he knows how insulted we’ll be.

This is terribly unfair to my daughter, who would love to travel, and would have a wonderful time seeing new places, trying new foods, and flying. I feel guilt about denying her things because of her brother, but how do we plan a family trip that excludes one of our kids? The answer is that we don’t. In recent years, my spouse and I have managed two international trips without the kids–both because they were work trips for him. We can’t afford to pay all that for both of us, and we certainly couldn’t afford to bring the kids. And if I didn’t have a sister-in-law within reasonable proximity who was willing to take them, I wouldn’t be going anywhere. I imagine my daughter’s first trip out of the country will happen when she’s in college–I hope she will want to study abroad. And then maybe she’ll make a birthright trip to Israel.

I have wondered before about posting things on social media, and if it is reasonable to think that people should take care not to brag. Who am I to say what anyone should post? I hate negative posts, too–we all have one “friend” whose life seems to be a complete misery, whose every ill, mishap, and misfortune is right there for us to read. I know people who like to post photos of grotesque injuries–not a bruise or a scrape, but swollen, suppurating things that belong nowhere but a medical text. Stitches, bits ripped off. I have blocked such people from my wall.

Years ago, an orthodox rabbi explained some rules of modesty to me in a way that at the time I considered ridiculous. He said a good reason not to hold hands with or (God forbid) kiss your partner in public is that you don’t know how very lonely that might make someone else feel, a passing stranger who is longing for a similar relationship. Now I see that differently. I don’t believe we can expect that people won’t hold hands out of sensitivity to the possible lonely-hearts around them; but it might not hurt, before we post our excitement on Facebook, to consider ways to share it that will hurt just a little less those who don’t have anything to counter it. Because some of us are running out of BandAids.

What a World

 

So little has changed, yet I feel devastated.  In my personal life and in the concerns outside my small house, the scales have dropped from my eyes.

And they keep dropping.

A friend of mine recently tried to buck me up, telling me that I would find my tribe. But my hope for this grows dimmer each day. Each time I commit to an ism, I find, eventually, that a huge percentage of its members hold a belief I consider reprehensible.

As the new president prepared to take office in the US, and things got uglier and uglier, I began to read. A lot of the pieces I read were editorials and essays by African American women explaining various things such as why they wouldn’t participate in the Women’s March, or why they distrusted mainstream feminism, or why they were frustrated by their participation in online feminist discussion groups. Initially, my reaction to these was just as they predicted, a kind of hey-but-I’m-nice-why-do-you-feel-that-way progressive liberal position. But as I read the knee-jerk ugly responses of white women, I began to see.

And then the Christmas season began, and it was worse for me than usual, probably because of the hateful climate. And I wanted to scream, “please, please leave me alone! I don’t celebrate that holiday, I don’t care about that holiday, and I’m tired of having that holiday shoved down my throat, up my nose, and forced into all my senses!” As a Jew, I know better. I would never, ever do that. Suddenly, I got it. I heard where the African American writers I’d read were coming from when they asked that we just listen instead of responding automatically. And I decided right then that I would become a listener, even if I would never get the chance to have the shoe on my foot, so to speak.

My work seeks to give voice to and raise up those whose opportunities have been limited. (For details on this, check out the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/islerink/). I believe wholeheartedly in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. I am an intersectional feminist. I am a bisexual married mother of two, and one of my kids is gender fluid. I am the sister, aunt, and cousin of people of color. Everyone in my home with the exception of me and the dogs is on the autism spectrum. My husband and I have discussed “whiteness” at length. We don’t really consider ourselves so. We’re not foolish; we know what we look like, and we are fully aware of our privilege. But we also know where our privilege ends. And we  know the difference between our world and that of someone who is a gentile.

I wake up every day to news of bomb threats and swastikas. I wake up to news of attacks on gay people, murders of trans women, police brutality of African Americans. Each story is a personal affront; each one cuts me down and makes the day feel just a little more like dragging my feet in loose shoes through mud. I go to synagogue, mostly for the peace of it, and there is always a police officer there for our safety. When I drop kids off for Hebrew school, there is always a police officer there for their safety. I wonder how most people would feel if they had to have the cops at church just to worship freely.

littlecreekswastika

In Norfolk, Virginia

Up until now, I have been able to ignore BLM’s position on Palestine. I never really understood why the movement’s leaders felt they needed to take a position on that issue at all, given the urgency of the issues right here at home, but I could pretty easily wrap my head around why they took a side with the people they see an underdog. Besides, BLM is not my movement; it is one I respect and would like to assist, but it is not one I imagine I have a say in. The other day, though, everything changed for me.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that my feelings about Israel are mixed. To me, Zionism is simply the belief that Israel has the right to exist. Therefore, I suppose I am a Zionist. I don’t believe anyone anywhere has the right to exist at the expense of anyone else, and I would like everyone to live in peace. It turns out, friends, that there is little room in the current feminist movement for the likes of me. The very belief that Israel should be allowed to be gets me labeled oppressor. If the bomb threats and swastikas weren’t enough to open my eyes to the level of antisemitism that’s been simmering away in America, the comment threads on articles regarding this issue took care of it. I was near tears yesterday, reading the poisonous, openly Jew-hating posts from my sisters-in-arms. It was so awful, truly.

And so I have only one ism left me, and it’s the one I’ll stick with. I’m going to call it Claudiaism, because I know what I believe to be right, and I know what I believe to be worth working for. Do not join me.