I saw the new “Ghostbusters” tonight. I came out of the theater glowing, so happy I felt it sparking through my body, off my skin, lighting me from head to toe. Four women. Four women! FOUR WOMEN! Leading the film! Not talking about relationships! The dramatic tension in the movie was NOT about a relationship with a man! Four funny women taking out the paranormal trash!

Was the movie perfect? No, of course not. But I laughed out loud many times. I got my jolt of nostalgia through listening to the music and the visual style of the ghosts. And I was incandescently happy about the lack of sexy-woman-ness in the movie. Oh god, it was so wonderful.

NO FAT JOKES! Not a one. Women eating, joking, getting to know each other. Women screwing up, women being smart, women running but not in an unrealistic superhero way, women getting shit done, and nary a bikini in sight.

It is literally impossible for me to convey how much all that meant to me. It’s like being told, finally, that I get to be a real person. That will be impossible for many people to understand. But the total and complete absence of anyone of my gender who looks like me NOT being the butt of jokes through the movie, or of pity. Oh my god.

I loved “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in a lot of ways. But even Buffy stayed pretty hip by nice tight jowl inside the universe of our screwed up beauty standard. And a lot of the tension in that show was built with more or less standard tropes, having to do with Buffy’s feelings about the various boys and men in her life.

Melissa McCarthy is only 2 years younger than I am. Kristen Wiig is 3 years younger than Melissa. Leslie Jones is my age. My god. Middle-aged, competent, funny, brave, interesting, smart women kicking ass.

Nostalgia is powerful. The patriarchy is yet more powerful, enormously so. Seeing this movie starts to show me how deeply I have absorbed the message that only men can be authoritative, funny, creative, believable, and *real* in that authentic, representative of the human species way. I can feel that programming resisting the data in front of my eyes. When humor, language, physical presentation, emotive expression, and style are all placed inside small, predictable boxes, it becomes hard to even recognize anything else. I remember the first time I had milk fresh from a cow. I was 14 years old. We were staying on a farm B&B in Cornwall. I didn’t like it. It tasted nothing like what came out of our plastic white jugs at home. It was warm, and so strong-tasting. Ew, I thought. It took a few days for my taste-buds to start adapting, for my expectations to change, for my mind and body to open to new experience.

Watching this movie, watching the few others I have seen where the female lead is not driven by romantic love or sexual trauma, and especially where the female lead is doing comedy, has been a similar experience. I almost cannot recognize the material. It is immediately filed away in my brain as not-right, less-than.

In fairy tales, the heroine is (at least in the books of my childhood) almost exclusively the youngest and the prettiest and the sweetest girl. Those stories were always about someone else. The rewards were unreachable, and the lessons learned directed at others. I never imagined myself as the heroine. How could I? I was none of those things.

Movies are even worse. There is visual evidence that people of interest, people to whom we are meant to relate, are in a category and class entirely unreachable by me. I’ve written about that before on this blog.

And so the reaction I describe above seems to me to be to be a societal definition of girl- and woman-hood that excludes everyone else, creating self-hatred, which is then directed outward again at any sort of cultural/artistic expression which counters it or provides an alternative vision.

The sexist backlash against this movie has been predictable and disgusting. Some people act like the makers of this movie and desecrating an altar, reaching into their minds and ruining their memories. And the racist backlash has been even more awful: Leslie Jones felt it necessary to leave Twitter due to the horrific things being tweeted her way. ( The violent, violating, infantile fury of people who want a white world of strong white men and sexy white women is a thing that damages people every day. It must be resisted every day. I think many people forget the necessity of resistance, because it’s the water we all swim in, and it’s made that way, to corrupt and divide and vanish into the murk when challenged.

And so, we give into self- and other-hatred, we dismiss, we acquiesce, we judge.

But I have had experiences where I feel the scales falling from my eyes, where I stretch and breathe and get a different sort of oxygen in my lungs. Spending time in dyke bars does that for me. Spending long and intensive time with women does that for me. Sometimes in a great while a book does that for me. And I am going to watch this movie over and over until I can chuck the societal definitions screaming in my head, and take in what is before my eyes, let it sink in.

A place where someone like me can be fully human.

I saw the movie with a friend who is 22 years my junior. I have known her for 15 years, since she was in elementary school. When the original movie came out I was in my mid-teens, 10 years younger than she is now. The world was a different place then; I was very different then. Being a private cello teacher, I’ve had the chance over the past couple of decades to watch quite a number of kids grow up. I have been so happy to see how many of my female students are involved in sports, reaping the benefits of a more vigorously enforced Title IV. My friend has had since she was a kid a stronger sense of herself and her capabilities than I did when I was a kid, partly due to family environment, and partly to personality. But also, though it’s not linear and there are definitely ways in which things have gotten the opposite of better (gender expression polarization, for example, and the toxic explosion of pink-beauty-princess-defined girlhood), there have been real gains made too which I see manifested in her life and the lives of my students.

Being able to have a feminist joy-fest with her, to share the laughs and the joys with her, was a special gift.

My 7-year-old has been picking up on the pretty significant gender disparity in media and books. She notices. And that is a great thing. I tell her what I think about it, but I cannot tell her what to think about it, not really. What I want is for her to notice. She’s starting to notice the media white-wash, too. I told her this afternoon that I was going to see the movie. I told her I was really excited about it, because it was a remake of one I’d seen when I was a kid, and this one was 4 women. She said, “Oh, and it was all men before?” I said that yes, it was. “And,” she said, “was it all white people?” Yes, I said, it was.

Right now, though I am terrified, horrified, agonized about many things happening in the world, I do believe that change is possible. It is possible to re-learn. It is possible to prioritize justice and love and collaboration. And to do so one has to live it every day. And one has to forgive oneself for the thousands of times one fails to do so.

This movie makes me want to shout and punch things and dance and laugh and conquer and learn and grow.

Thank you to everyone who made it.

Accepting our shared human nature

Fear and anger are two human emotions. We cannot legislate them out of existence. We can’t laugh them out of existence. We can’t banish them, in ourselves or in others. They are so much, much easier than love and vulnerability.

Love is a human emotion, but it is also a discipline. And it is a discipline of inclusion. It will do us no good, help us in no way in our evolution as a species and in our cultures, to despise and ridicule those who are expressing fear and anger when confronting the changes in their world. Such feelings are rarely expressed gracefully. It is so, so easy to respond so the ugliness of that expression with disgust, and a return of the fear and anger.

In that sense, hatred while also being a human emotion, is also a discipline. It’s just such an easier discipline than love. It is the discipline of exclusion. It is an attempt to control. It often comes from a sense of powerlessness.

Our species is violent. People are fundamentally self-centered. I am beginning to know that without the sort of despair it engendered in me in previous phases of my life. To accept these realities of the human condition is not, in my mind, to become complacent, but to move toward positive change from a more centered and grounded place.

And so, I think we make a fundamental and destructive mistake when, in the effort to improve ourselves and to repudiate the violences of the past and present, we say to people with whom we do not agree, “You should not have a voice; you do not deserve it”. This is really an attempt to excise part of our shared humanity. It does not work. And we so often double down when we simultaneously (often subconsciously) attach unassailable virtue to the arguments of people with whom we do agree.

I repudiate with everything in me the racism expressed by Donald Trump. The eagerness with which some of his supporters have taken up the overt and aggressive expression of that racism terrifies me. But if the response by those of us who oppose him is to judge and laugh at his supporters and wish we could vote them all off the island, we will be digging our own political graves.

We must attempt to understand, to hear. Everyone deserves a voice, even if that creates an incredibly ungainly and messy and sometimes unworkable system.

When I attempt to put my rage in a box and throw it away, that is an act of violence, the only result of which is to toxify and twist and magnify that rage.

I am not suggesting that racism be coddled or not challenged. Challenge it! White people have to challenge it with consistency and energy, and persistence. Similarly, I expect my feminist-ally male friends to challenge sexism, and to be willing to listen to me when I challenge them.

But do not make a virtue out of your beliefs and priorities to the extent that you find yourself dehumanizing anyone who disagrees with you, that all you can see is their stupidity or blindness. Do not assume that other people hold different priorities from malice or some sort of debased character.

Believe passionately. Live your values. But mock and degrade other people at your peril. Doing so will bite you in your ass.

Self-affirmations as a path to self-love

At my latest hair appointment, I was feeling sad and overwhelmed for various reasons. I’ve been going to that stylist for a number of years, and we’ve had a number of reasonably substantive conversations. I can’t remember what the segue was for this question, but I asked her how she approaches self-image and not being thin in our society where that is so prized, so perceived as necessary by so many people.

I have written about this before, but one thing that has been a source of sadness and frustration for me is my reaction when my boyfriend (or anyone else, for that matter) tells me I am beautiful: that is, I simply cannot relate myself to the word, and it slides off of me as though just under my skin there is a paper-thin but impenetrable shield. I wish to feel pleased by the compliment. I have felt that to be impossible. Sheer effort of will is not enough to flip the switch that has been cemented in place since I was very little, the switch in my self-identity set to fat/ugly/repulsive/loser.

On the other hand, of course, a negative comment or expression directed my way has a thousand channels into my psyche, where it can enter freely and pick at the wounds from previous encounters. Over the years I have worked hard on healing those wounds, and I have made a lot of progress. I used to feel repulsed by my body; now, most of the time, I do not. I have even made progress in softening and walking away from the identification with the self-hatred described above.

But believing that I am beautiful? That has really felt impossible. The best I could hope for, I believed, was a lack of self-hatred, an alliance with my body based on mutual positive intent, respect, appreciation for function, teamwork. My mental calculus has been, beauty = x, and I am y, so it is impossible for me to be beautiful. It doesn’t feel like self-hatred: just a logical acceptance of reality.

But really, a denial of love is at the least neglect, if not really hatred in another form. And, whether I would like to be or not, I am not indifferent to my body.

So, after that conversation with my stylist I decided to try the self-affirmation tack that has been recommended to me before, but which I have felt resistance to. That is, I look at myself in the mirror every day and say, out loud, “I am beautiful.” I also list details about my face or my hair, or my body. And lo and behold, it is working! I am shifting how I feel about myself, and now beauty is not something which seems to belong entirely to other people. I have also added, “I play cello beautifully” (though I want to change the wording of that), and, “I can be angry and still be a good mother,” because those two items are often equally problematic for me.

Of note, however, is how insidious our thin=beautiful societal definition is. I noticed that when I feel better about myself, I look different to myself, and what that actually means is that I look THINNER to myself. I see the shape of my body differently. When I am feeling bad about myself, I see myself as fatter. So, my goal now is to look at myself, at all of me, at what I really look like, and state that my body, as it is, is beautiful. And that is an act of rebellion. But for the first time, I believe that it is possible.

Practicing Agreement

After several days of really challenging practices with my daughter, I decided to apply some Positive Discipline techniques. This afternoon she and I discussed how we both wanted to structure her piano practices, and what we want to try in case of conflict. The basic ideas follow. We each contributed to this plan. I am sure it will be tweaked and re-worked, but I feel confident already that it will help. It will mean a lot less of my daughter feeling that I am driving everything. I will be able to back off and stop talking as much. Agreements are good. Execution is important. I am looking forward to this!

Pick a piece:

    Identify what to focus on during the run-through;
    Each of us picks something to work on;
    Another run through;
    Another piece;

Things to consider:

    Piece logistics (r/l hand; fingering; note direction; chords, etc.);

And in case of conflict, we made some communication guidelines:

    Take a deep breath and try again;
    Restate what the other person said;
    Leave the room to cool down briefly;
    Share a hug (if both people want to);
    Request a different piece or section or task.

And our incentives are:

    For practicing: a regular sticker;
    For using a regular voice: a special sticker each;
    For excellent focus: 10 cents / 30 minutes of practice

Grief and Stress

Tonight, as Ted and I sat watching a TV show (something that is a pretty rare event for us), I worried. We hadn’t seen one of our cats since the day before, and this cat never spends more than a couple of hours away from the house. He is a home body. Earlier, I had called the Animal Control line and listened to the descriptions of the cats that were being held. I felt guilty for sitting and watching TV, thought about Pepper out somewhere, hurt or dead, thought about telling my kids, felt agonized.

After the second episode, we started getting ready to close up for the night, talking about our difficult feelings about our cat. I went out the back door and called for him, and was entirely astounded to hear his meow. I looked over the stairs to the path between our house and our neighbor’s house, and there he was. I called again, and he slunk under their gate and came, slowly, around to our stairs. Normally if he’s been out a bit longer than he wants, he bounds up the stairs, shoots up them like a four-footed bullet.

I let him into the house, came into the kitchen, and started to cry.

My dad died in December. It was a shock. Though he had major health challenges for decades, he’d been relatively stable for a long time, and was not in an obvious health crisis at the time of his death. I headed back home immediately. The day after I got back I had rehearsals, since there were multiple concerts coming up. The second rehearsal included a Corelli piece I know he would have loved, and I felt a passionate wish he could be there to hear it. In the break I stood up to thank the orchestra for its caliber, its feeling. And, talking, I cried. I felt stabs of grief for the loss of my dad.

Mostly, since then, I have not been able to access that grief. This year has been so incredibly stressful in various ways, and though it has also been a lot of other things, I am learning another lesson in how stress can inhibit the experience of other emotions: it can undercut joy, certainly, but it can also block grief. It commands one’s system, demands attention, demands appeasement. And when it goes on for long enough, it frays nerves, depletes resources. And yet, as it does so it refuses to give way to anything else.

But sometimes things can slip in anyway. One grief can be a conduit for another. We were just in my hometown last week, and seeing my kids play in the house where I grew up does bring into focus my dad’s absence. He loved to read to his grandchildren. He loved to see them, to talk with them. I can see the smile on his face now. The house has been changed quite a bit since his death, due to my siblings and I rearranging it for my mom, who was hospitalized in January (and who is doing much better now). The changes in the house bring my dad to mind, thinking about how he would feel about them. I felt his absence acutely that first morning we were there. And then, one thing I did while I was in town was to go pick up my dad’s things from his university, a place he taught for decades. I had a wonderful conversation with a couple members of the administration, and with a former colleague of my dad’s. Talking about his professional life, about his love for his subject and his colleagues brought him back to me freshly.

So it was up and present when, tonight, I feared that this week we’d be grieving the loss of our cat and attempting to help our kids process it. And when Pepper came into the kitchen, I felt undone, that I can’t take any more.

Lately I’ve felt the impulse to beg the universe for a break, because I’d love to have a few months free of major challenging events. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. I feel like all it’s possible to really ask for is support, help, love. And there is a lot of love.

For me, stress is often about worrying about things which feel out of my control. I fear negative results or events, and so I worry about them. Stress can sometimes be an attempt to handle that which we cannot control, which is to say, life. It is often about the future, and an indeterminate future at that. It can be about worrying about what other people think or feel, about what may happen or may not happen. It can involve projections, incomplete information. It can be a habituated response to the circumstance of not knowing what is going to happen. It’s very noisy, internally. And, as noted above, it takes up a lot of my resources.

So, today I have received another lesson in the necessity of practicing staying in the moment, accepting my feelings whatever they are, and trusting myself and the universe that whatever happens I will respond to it. Not that I will handle it, not that I will be able to control it. But I will respond, and I will do the best I can.

If I can remember that, I can dial back the stress. And then it’s easier to feel. And it’s easier to act.

So, I miss my dad. I miss his intelligence and thoughtfulness. I miss his love and delight in his subject, and in the art of teaching. I miss his love and joy in his grandchildren. I wish I could see him again. And, somehow, I do not believe that he doesn’t exist any more. But I cannot frame that in a rational/logical/mind sort of way. It is a feeling.

And tomorrow, instead of making signs with which to plaster the neighborhood, Ted will dig out the tracking collars we’ve previously used for the cats. And I will teach, and then I will take Hazel to her piano lesson, and then I will practice, and then I will go see a movie. And I will, when it feels right, have a dialogue with my dad about what I’m doing in my life. And I’ll look forward to playing music on the sound system he and I picked out together many years ago, and I will remember him.

And I will try to make time in my days for remembrance, for reflection, and to give my heart a time and place to feel what it does, in the present moment, without the incredible racket of stress. I don’t know whether it’s time to say goodbye or hello or what, but I don’t need to know or understand that, either.

One-on-one time, in a family of five

Today we set it up so that all three kids got some one-on-one time with one of us. Given that there are three kids, and that the younger two are twins, this is something that virtually never happens. I remember taking Joanna to a medical appointment a couple of years ago and realizing that it was possibly the first time in her life I’d ever spent more than five minutes with her, just the two of us. It’s something that we’ve wanted to do, but has felt challenging to actually accomplish. Today we did it. Hazel got time with her daddy, and Emily and Joanna each got time with me.

It was so wonderful, both in the moment and later. The twins were both more affectionate with me throughout the day, and I felt that our connection was reinforced and refreshed, updated and newly prioritized by the time together, even though it was short, only an hour and a half in each case.

This week Hazel has been home from school for spring break, and it has been a difficult week in some regards. I really have a hard time with lots of simultaneous input from multiple sources, and having three kids around instead of two pushes my limits at times. And I also fell into the trap of having expectations about how the time was going to go, and even more unproductively, how I was going to feel about it. And then the week got fairly complicated in other ways, and my attention was split, and I started to feel guilty about not having the sort of week I had expected to have, and then it got harder to handle, and well, if you have children you likely know that cycle.

Nonetheless, there have been many positives as well as difficulties. Among other things, both the positives and the negatives provide opportunities to learn. And I appreciated today’s opportunities to revel in the simplicity of one child, one conversation, the sweetness of a pair, and the wonderful individuality of my children.

Favorite moments include: Emily snuggled up with me inside my bathrobe; Joanna asking me to repeat the sound effect I made as she ran her hand along a chain-link fence; the fort built in the living room by Ted and Hazel, and all of them sitting under it as he read a book to them; and Ted and I doing a good job both of setting expectations about bedtime (we’re trying to get back on track) and also flexing together where necessary when realizing that insisting on absolute adherence was going to get us nowhere good.

I am so grateful for my family.

Food and willpower, and judgement

I have had a complicated relationship with food since I was a kid. I grew up in a family in which healthy eating was a high priority. We very rarely ate out, ate a lot of veggies, and had few nutritionally deficient foods in the house. So certainly eating healthily was modeled for me. However, food & fat & character are tied together in really destructive ways in our culture, and being labeled fat as an elementary school kid really didn’t help. And there were ways in which food & hierarchy & character assessment were intertwined in our family which made me eating food a bit of a loaded thing.

As an adult I have gained weight. I am definitely not the same size I was when I was an 18-year-old college freshman. Given that for so long I bought the fat=unhealthy&ugly/healthy=thin&beautiful messaging that is so prevalent, it has been really hard to make clean choices about my food and about my health; underlying all of them was a passionate desire to become thin and therefore acceptable. As I have written about before, I have been working on gradually jettisoning some of that baggage from my mind and heart, especially since having children.

One of the things that I’ve done that has worked for me has been the Whole30 program, where for 30 days I eat principally meat proteins and veggies. Staying off sugar and most grains helps me have a clearer head, a happier gut, and more energy. However, I have found that though I can successfully eat no sugar while doing a Whole30, once I’m off it, the just-this-once mentality quickly kicks in, and I start quite frequently eating all sorts of crap I really don’t want. And when I do that, it is so easy to fall back into being hard on myself. And then, given societal pressures and childhood programming, I can find myself teetering on the brink of a punishment/indulgence pattern that is so destructive.

In the quest to find a balance that feeds all parts of me while creating a structure that helps me achieve my health goals, I have discovered that what works for me is to have assigned treat days at reasonable intervals (every two or three weeks seems to work). That way, when I’m tempted to eat that pizza/ice cream/bag of chips I can delay the fulfillment of that gratification rather than telling myself a flat no. Knowing that in a week or two I can have X, Y, or Z, (or some reasonable and delicious substitute) helps. It also helps me focus on which “treats” I really want, so I’m eating higher quality sugar when I do have it, for example.

Mostly, my goal is to move away from the model of punishing myself for a failure of will-power (“I was bad: I deserve to suffer!”) to one in which I can offer myself compassion, understanding, support, and a deeper connection to what I really want (“How do I want to feel, and how will this food support or work against me feeling good?”).

And then, if I can do that with myself, maybe I can do it with my kids.