Monday, December 17, 2012

In Which I Hope We Have Enough Warriors

There have been, of late, too many tragedies like Newtown or Aurora.  Each one provokes a predictable round of conversations that flare quickly briefly, the national dialogue of "We must do something to control these guns" met by "responsible gun owners save lives" met by "shouldn't there be some limitations on gun ownership" met by Constitutional arguments, a whirling round of binary posturing that spins down into obscurity after a few weeks as other media horrors capture our attention.

Relatively recently, this mix has begun to include pleas for reform or at least expansion of our mental healthcare system, calls for better diagnosis and treatment of the sort of severe mental illness we imagine to be required for someone to fire a gun into a crowded theatre or classroom, or pilot his airplane into an office building -- because it's unthinkable that anyone besides a complete madman would do such a thing.

On all sides, there's a tremendous amount of political haymaking, with everyone certain he or she can find the magic solution in a law, a funding decision, the presence or absence of a deity in our public lives, that will resolve all of this, and insisting that solution be implemented to the exclusion of all others.

What I see precious little of, however, is evolution in our cultural dialogue on violence, on our shift from the narrative of the Warrior to the narrative of unbridled vengeance.

When I was a young girl, I watched a lot of movies.  I remember Red Dawn and Back to the Future and Goonies.  There seemed to be a tone, in much of the media I consumed, that said, "Yes, there are bullies and enemies and they are horrible people, but the little guy can stand up, and he can PUNCH that bully right in the nose, and the bully will leave him alone."  These were narratives of the Warrior:  if you are strong and brave and kind, if you fight for yourself and your loved ones, you can overcome those who would abuse or exploit you.  We had Han Solo and the Last Starfighter, who took on fights they could have abandoned, because they made a conscious choice to stand for the right.

I was inoculated with the culture of the Warrior, and it still resonates within me.  Somewhere, though, we started to be embarrassed, to consider the idea passe and hokey.  We found different icons:  The Crow, Thelma and Louise, avatars of wrath and vengeance.  We began to see a broad cultural shift in motivation, from protecting our loved ones and standing for what's right, to retribution and being the self-appointed right hand of karma.

The narrative of vengeance, of the man who's had too much and snaps, isn't new.  One need only look at Taxi Driver to see it.  The difference is that older narratives treat the descent into vengeance as a horror, a brutal depravity.  Batman Begins, on the other hand, a plot line fueled on all sides by revenge and retribution, is a glorious and lovingly crafted symphony of beautiful explosions, car chases, and gadgets.

Don't get me wrong; I love Batman Begins, and I own it on DVD.  But when I watch it, I find myself viewing it through the lens of the Warrior my childhood left behind.  I don't want to *be* that Batman, a dark hero despised by the people he has chosen to stand for, whose civic duty is tinged with a contempt and bitterness for the people unlucky enough to deserve a hero like him.  I have defenses against it, but I worry that we don't all have those defenses.  I worry that if we're raised on a diet of vengeance and violence, we lose the capacity to choose to use force responsibly. If we lose the heart of the Warrior, then we lose something precious that I believe we need very much.

I do have a certain amount of hope, though.  In every moment of tragedy, I have heard of heroes.  Stories of teachers who risked their lives at Columbine to lead students to safety.  Names like Liviu Librescu, the Holocaust survivor who died holding off the Virginia Tech gunman while his students fled.  Stories of first responders in Aurora, pushing towards the theatre to rescue the wounded, not sure if the gunman was still inside.  Kaitlin Roig, who sheltered those under her care, asked them to be brave with her, and spoke words of loving compassion to children she believed were about to die with her, so that the last things they heard would be, "It's going to be OK" and "I love you" instead of gunfire.  Those are Warriors' hearts.

Into the Murrah Building, into the twin towers, to the front of Flight 93, people ran towards danger to help those in need, to defend the innocent, to save loved ones.  Every day, around the world, people from all walks of life, teachers and firefighters and computer programmers and nurses and soldiers and retail clerks are given chances to stand up and choose love in the face of danger, oppression, ignorance, and hate.  Fewer, now, choose the path of the Warrior, and those that do risk ridicule or dismissal, but we can change that.

If you would stem the tide of violence, by all means advocate for better gun control and better mental health care and better protections or police patrols or whatever other concrete means you believe will effect that change.  But beyond that, do what you can to remind yourself and those around you of the importance of Warriors.  Forget the names of those who took up arms to seek vengeance, who lashed out in maddened hate and fury against a world they believed had wronged them personally.  Let them fall into obscurity, and remember instead the names of those who stood against them in courage, compassion and love.

Friday, November 30, 2012

On Human Interaction and Actual Social Skills

I've been rewatching "Sherlock" for the third or fourth time this week.  It really is a gorgeously done thing.  As someone who's had lots of friends (sometimes casual, sometimes close) most of her adult life, and who's never really had trouble making friends with people, watching the evolution of the relationship between Sherlock and Watson sparks my empathy.

Over the years I've known a lot of brilliant otherwise incredibly competent people who simply could not master the murky waters of social navigation.  These were not dumb people.  They were poets and physicists, artists or mechanics or warriors, who could pick up the tools of almost any trade and master them easily.  They weren't antisocial people, either.  They genuinely wanted a circle of trusted friends and loved ones.

But they spent years, most of them, viewing human interaction as an incomprehensible and illogical morass of hurt feelings and hidden rules.  They'd watch and observe those around them, noting appropriate behaviours and responses, and then try to use the data they'd collected.  It would go well, for a while, and then they'd say or do something wrong and everything would explode.  Everyone would be hurt and upset, and they could not explain why.  They just knew that somehow the technically correct action had been wildly inappropriate, and that everyone around them appears to have known, by secret communication, that it was wrong.  When someone more socially savvy would point out, "Well, here is why the people are upset, and what they expected you to do, and how you can apologise and explain to them that you didn't mean to hurt them," they would ask, "How on earth did you KNOW that?  Where did you learn it?  How do I know not to upset people in the future?  Who taught you the right things to say?"

The answer I give to that isn't very satisfying:  I just know.  I learned it by making the mistakes you're making now, when I was younger and there was more forgiveness for them, when the stakes for upsetting a friend were not as high.  You can't keep from upsetting people, and you won't always know the right things to say.

There are tools in all human relationships, but they're not the tools you see from the outside.  Small talk looks stupid and pointless, but it's not just small talk.  It's 'listening' and 'paying attention'.  Just learning to repeat the 'right' phrases means you respond to "My dog died today," with "Well, it was great weather for it!"

The other tools are no more obvious or apparent.  There's empathy, sympathy, intuition, and compassion, all of which involve a risk.  You cannot feel empathy for another person unless you're willing to actually open up your own thoughts and feelings to them and be affected by theirs.  Most of the compassionate people I know got that way by learning firsthand how it feels to be hurt.  You learn how to be a friend by sitting, talking, and listening, not by working out the statistical frequency of when it's your turn to buy the beer.  When I talk to people about my depression, many of them want to know the thing to say or do to 'make it better'.  Nothing will make it better.  Just be there and be present and I'll work my own way back to better, because being there is more helpful than any action you might take.

Most people out there started life no better at human interaction than anyone else.  Some had really good teachers, some had really bad ones.  Some have added barriers like Asperger's or social anxiety, and some have a natural knack or charm for dealing with others, but for the most part people all eventually blunder through learning how to relate to other people by a trial-and-error process.  If they're lucky, it happens sometime in elementary school and they manage to enter adult life knowing how to make friends, chat up an attractive person, or make small talk with a prospective employer.

For smart people, especially people who know they're smarter than those around them, it can be doubly challenging because learning to relate to people doesn't feel like other kinds of learning.  There's no way to assess or measure your progress, there's not really any research literature to review, and your test subjects cannot be relied upon to provide accurate feedback.  You have no way to know if you're getting it right, until you're not.  And when suddenly you're not, it's usually in front of a large number of people, some of whom you really do care very much about, who can all now see how incompetent you are at this thing everyone else does (apparently) effortlessly, and the penalty for failure can be brutal.

It's terrifying, and it's no surprise that a lot of people just give up entirely. They say, "Fuck them and their games, I'll just be alone."  The difference between them and people who are simply antisocial is that antisocial people never particularly cared enough about connecting with other people to try and learn the skills, but a certain number of people who DO care resign themselves to loneliness halfway through learning that skillset, because it's incredibly discouraging.  Many of them end up angry, bitter, and frustrated by the fact that demonstrably less-competent people are able to accomplish more because they learned how to navigate the system instead of relying on technical brilliance alone.

Some people resolve to master it, no matter what it takes.  They keep making the mistakes, painful as they are, and refining their approach.  They watch obsessively, observing every example of human behaviour.  They read self-help and management technique books (the closest thing to 'how to relate to people' really does seem to be 'how to manage people'), and eventually they manage to cultivate enough of the technical skill set that they proceed through life without making major gaffes.  They've learned the wrong skills, though:  small talk and when to give flowers and that you have to help people move, instead of genuine empathy and active listening.  At best, they end up as early Data from Star Trek: TNG, who has calculated the exact force appropriate in a handshake, just firm and friendly enough to inspire the right level of confidence.  At worst, they can come off as false and abrasive, and occasionally a little bit creepy.

There's a third option, but not a lot of people have the courage or opportunity to take it.  You have to be willing to be really, seriously hurt.  You have to admit that learning to figure out how others are thinking and feeling, and being willing to respond to them in a real and genuine manner, is worth the risk.  You have to find friends who won't tell you "This is what you should have said or done," but will tell you "This is what you should have heard" and ask you "How would you feel in an equivalent situation?"  Feelings are always going to be a complicated and irrational business, but once you start listening to how people talk about themselves and trying to work out what they actually need from you, it does get simpler over time.

And if, like me, you're one of the lucky ones who does understand human interaction even when you make mistakes at it, the best thing you can do for your friends who don't seems to be to say, when they have misunderstood you or don't appear to be hearing you, "This is what I was saying, what I was trying to communicate to you.  This is the experience I am having and I need you to be aware of and sensitive to that."  It's also a hard thing, but ultimately worth it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

In Which I Do Care How You Vote

I'm hearing it a lot today, and I think it misses the point:

"I don't care who you vote for, just vote."

You know what?  I do care who you vote for.  I care a whole hell of a lot because who you vote for affects my life.  Your choices change my world, so I care very much how you make them.

This doesn't mean I only want people who think like me to vote.  I would rather every candidate I support lose with 100% turnout of informed, dedicated voters than that my candidates and ideas sweep the country with 45% turnout.  If all my friends and neighbors carefully considered their votes and decided that my opinions were wrong, then I would hope that I could trust their judgment.

Would I like it if my candidates and ideas all won?  Of course; that's why I'm voting for them.  I chose the candidates that best represented me, that I felt would govern well, that spoke reasonably and intelligently about things I'm passionate about.  I chose the ballot initiatives that I believe will balance responsible community growth with fairness and compassion.  Each vote represented someone or something I thought would help my community, my state, or my nation be the best it can be.

That's what I want of my fellow Americans.  Don't vote "against that bastard."  Don't cast reactionary votes against "anything at all that raises taxes".  Don't vote a straight ticket (especially in places where there's not always a member of a given party in every race); even if you vote for every member of a political party running, consider every one of those votes carefully and deliberately, and make it individually.  Look those names in the eye, as it were.

Vote your interests.  Vote your conscience.  Vote your future and the futures of the children in your life.  Vote to make a better world.  Vote to make a kinder world.  Vote for men and women who demonstrate integrity even when they don't agree with you -- ESPECIALLY when they don't agree with you.  Vote for people you're pretty sure are smarter than you, because there are tough and scary problems to solve.  Vote for people with the courage to make difficult choices and the compassion to worry about whether they're making the right ones.

Vote for people who will make the changes in the world you want to see, and protect the things you treasure.  Vote for ideas that will build a world where you want to live.

Vote with passion.  Vote with compassion.  Vote with one eye towards Beauty, and one towards Justice.  Vote to improve the present and preserve the future.

But whatever you do, vote.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In Which I Am Grateful to my Dead

I used to spend some time each summer at my grandparents' farm in eastern Missouri.  I'm sure my long-suffering mother viewed it as a blessed reprieve from her increasingly snarky younger daughter, but what it ended up being was a chance for me to really get to know my grandmother when neither of us was on 'company' behaviour.  I was a fully tempestuous teenager, and she was not as willing to overlook my attitude; we got along remarkably well despite that.

The year I turned fifteen, I suffered the agony of agonies, the most terrible trauma, that utterly awful experience: having to talk to an adult about my period because I had not planned adequately and had convinced myself that somehow, if I really really didn't want to deal with it during the visit, it would just...not happen.  Every woman reading this is snickering.  I can hear you all.

Mortified, horrified by my body's betrayal, I went to my grandmother and confessed my moon-bound shame in a barely audible mumble, wishing desperately that the earth would open and swallow me.  She merely said, "Well, then, I guess you need some of those pad things.  I got some in the mail once and I think they're in a drawer, and then you and I will just go into town to the Wal-mart and get you more."  With an utter minimum of fuss and angst (remarkable given my tendency to melodrama), the matter was resolved within an hour and I was left completely flummoxed by her practical, reasonable management of a situation that had seemed utterly daunting to me.

If anyone who knows me has ever been surprised by my ability to manage other peoples' crises pragmatically and swiftly, be assured that I come by it honestly; my mother does it as brilliantly as my grandmother ever did, and I strive to meet their example.

That hour, in which my shame and embarrassment and resentment of my own body were dispatched by calm acceptance and rational problem-solving, remains one of my core memories of my grandmother.  One of the other ones that stands out is a recurring one:  after I went away to college, got married, got divorced, and all through the years of living in Kansas and even living in Texas, every time I went to have dinner with my grandmother, she tried to have mashed potatoes on the table one way or another.  She knew they were one of my favorite foods, and for some reason they're just not a food people usually make for themselves.  Plus, she made way better gravy than I do.  Tonight, to honor her, I'm making roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, and those brownies she used to call the 'diet-busters', caramel and chocolate chips oozing in the middle.  I'm setting her out a little plate and a small glass of wine.

I miss my grandmother.  We only saw each other once a year, and rarely spoke on the phone, but the knowledge that she's no longer there affects my entire world.  It's been almost a year since she died, and I still occasionally look at something I've done, some way I've interacted, and hope that she would be proud of me.

As the sun sets on the last day of the year, and the night rises, I tend to think on the lessons my dead have taught me, and those I'm learning from the living.  I plan for my long winter's burning by remembering those who have brightened my own path one way or another.

From my grandmother, I learned not only that reassuring pragmatism and a delight in simple food prepared well, but an even more important truth:  kindness is never wasted energy.

From my stepfather, who made me welcome in his house and found ways to give me 'extra' meat and vegetables without either of us admitting I didn't have enough to eat in college, I learned that it's worthwhile to try and find ways to help others that allow them to keep their dignity and their sense of self-worth.

From my Aunt Justine and Uncle Warren, I learned that family is not just about direct bloodlines, and that the abundance of a home is never diminished by sharing its hospitality and laughter.

From my best friend Jen, I learned that just because you aren't the brightest star in a given constellation, that's no excuse not to shine for all you're worth, because your light adds to the beauty of the sky in ways you can't see.

From Tony, gone almost twenty years, one of the hardest lessons:  live your life for yourself, because you can't save people against their will.

From my maternal great-grandmother, a stronger woman than I ever understood while she lived, I learned that we are not only who we appear to be in any single moment of our lives.

From my father's mother, the first death I can recall, comes the understanding that the joy of freely sharing what you have is not necessarily dependent on whether the magnitude of that gift is fully understood by the recipient.

They stand around me, and more, cousins and great-aunts and friends and long-gone loved ones, each with a lesson or a blessing or a challenge, and as the veil thins between the worlds I open my heart to listen to them, to accept what they bring to me and offer my own gratitude.  I think of artists and musicians, of writers and speakers who have all added to the Beauty of this world, and I'm profoundly thankful that their passions live on.

I have been blessed in my life, to be touched by bright souls and strong ones.  I have been loved and challenged and shaped by them, and I continue to be.  Gods willing, I shall continue to be.

The old year is dying, the new one beginning, and I offer thanks and farewell to my dead for another year.  I release my own dead weight, my old habits and fears and resentments, and feed that which I do not need into my Samhain fire.  May it burn through the coming winter to illuminate my path, to give me fuel to stand as a beacon and kindle those whose fires burn low in the darkness and the cold.

So mote it be.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

In Which I am Shrinking But Not Diminished

I lost eight pounds this past weekend.  All my health-conscious friends, on hearing that, want to tell me how unhealthy it is.  It's become a festival reality for me, though.  Last April, I lost fourteen.  There have been some fluctuations, but that weight seems to have stayed off; I expect this weekend's eight to stay gone too.  The pants that were tight (but not uncomfortably so) last Wednesday are close to needing a belt today.

What am I doing?  My festival schedule is such:  I arrive Wednesday night and begin moving.  From Thursday morning to Sunday morning, I'm expected to cover 24 hours as a Chief Guardian, but the reality for all the Chiefs is that we end up working more like 40, because there's the person who finds his way into your camp with questions, there's the daily meetings, there's the training sessions, there's the emergency call that needs all hands to answer it, there's the situation you happen to be walking by and step in to address.  Because we have recently instituted changes that allow the Chiefs to patrol instead of being required to stay at our administrative hub, for these last two festivals I've been mostly standing or walking when I'm on duty.  I can expect to be in some form of motion for a solid twelve hours a day, not counting trips through the merchants' area for my own shopping, walks to visit friends' camps, or dancing around the fire at night after I'm off duty.

I'll let that sink in for a moment:  For three and a half days, I spend a minimum of half my time walking.  Not half my waking time.  Half my time (though, I do only sleep 2-5 hours a night at festival).

My fitness tracker tells me that walking, even at a slow pace, burns about 200 calories an hour.  Since I shift back and forth between a brisk 'walk with purpose' and standing in one place for 20 minutes to talk through something with someone, that seems a reasonable compromise.  That means that in walking alone I'm burning some 2400 calories a day.  I simply can't eat fast enough to keep up with that, let alone when I put in a couple hours of dancing, or a recreational walk around the back 40 to look at the stars without a radio.  It's no wonder I am losing weight.

The off-season habits are also part of it.  I've kept up regular workouts between festivals, which haven't caused much in the way of strict weight loss, but have building lean muscle and improving my cardiovascular efficiency.  So, when I ask more of my body for several days, it delivers, and it pulls extra-hard from my stored resources to do it.  Someday, I may run out of fat reserves I can healthily blow through, but for now I just keep a belt handy and buy pants more often.

I do, by the way, eat at festival.  I joke about not having time for food, but I actually eat more calories per day there than I do at home.  When I realised that I tended to be too busy to think about food, I asked a couple of friends if they would make sure to hurl tiny sammiches, veggies, hummus, figs, and apples in my direction throughout the day, and bring me meat on a stick if I wasn't in camp for dinner.  Most of my food at festival is meat, veggies, and bread eaten while walking, but I get about 2500 calories a day (as opposed to my usual 1600-1800).

This post is not actually about *weight loss*, though the weight loss is a convenient indicator of what this post is about.  What I'm talking about here is an example of what I talked about in my last entry.  I ask a lot of my body for about ten days a year.  I ask it to be better, stronger, faster, and sturdier than I do all the rest of the year.  I ask it to carry me through a lot of hard work and unplanned activity.  I couldn't ask this of my enemy.  I have to ask it of my ally, and I've been steadily making sure I give it the tools to do what I ask: resources and training.

And what, you may ask, am I getting besides the ability to finish a festival without being utterly exhausted and destroyed?  I'm getting fitter, not just skinnier (skinny is kind of irrelevant to me).  I am becoming a Fierce and Formidable Badass Badger, because I am building a body that can healthily do what I ask of it, regardless of its actual weight and shape, and that gives me a confidence and a strength that have nothing to do with my dress size.

I love us all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In Which I Do Not Accept the Enemy I Am Given

I have a friend who has struggled with her health for some time.  She has undetermined health issues, which her doctors can't explain, that essentially make a simple diet and a good night's sleep her personal Holy Grail.  She's recounted her experience in detail, and I've been following it.

Recently, she had a moderate epiphany helped out by a friend, in which she decided to shift her relationship with her body to one of compassion and empathy, to address her difficulties by remembering that her body is doing the best that it can, and it is not her enemy.

This struck me on a deep and personal level, because I have spent much of my adult life struggling with my weight and body image and my perception of my own attractiveness.  I've often felt undervalued, because I undervalued myself.  I treated my life as something I had to ensure didn't interfere with anyone else.  Most of it has been rooted in the idea that my body is my enemy, that my mind is my enemy, that my desires are my enemy, that my own identity is my enemy.  I am too fat, too smart, too extroverted, too chatty, too passionate, too ME to be borne.  I make others uncomfortable when I am strong, and disappoint them when I am weak.

Words of war fly at me, from every angle.  The magazine covers tell me how to 'defeat that stubborn fat!' and 'overcome those cravings!'  A gym commercial consoles me that I shouldn't accept my heritage or body type, if they interfere with how I want to look.  Advice abounds on how to sublimate your own needs in relationships with others, to make sure you've tricked them into feeling the way you want.  At every turn I'm offered weapons to use against myself, under the guise of motivating myself to destroy the person I am and become the person I'm told I should be.

I've spent the last few years gradually rising to resist the battle being brought to me, slowly coming to peace with my body and my identity and my loves and desires.  For a long time, I worried that that acceptance would mean I stopped evolving, stopped improving, stopped seeking.  If I ever accepted that my body was beautiful, I thought, I would stop taking care of it.  If I accept that my strength is not a liability, I might stop handling others with gentle compassion.  If I embrace the fact that I am smart and competent, I might stop learning new things.

In my head, I think, I have been viewing my possible relationships with my self as twofold:  antagonism or neutrality.  Deciding that I am not my enemy seemed to mean a sort of apathetic live-and-let-whatever attitude, that if I stopped fighting I ceded the right to care about the outcome.

There is a third option, and I've been slowly coming to understand what it means:  I am not my enemy, because I am my ally.  I want the best for me.  I want my own health and happiness.  I want myself to succeed, and to flourish.  This alliance has begun to transform my entire relationship with myself.

When I eat nutritious food, I do not think that I am staving off obesity or thwarting my love of donuts.  I think, "Here, body, is some stuff I know you need to do your job well.  I have taken the time to prepare it in an appetizing manner so that your sustenance is a pleasant experience."  If I work hard or skip a financial indulgence to save up a little extra, I think, "Hey, Future Self, enjoy that vacation!  Take lots of pictures so Further Future Self can look back and enjoy the trip!"  When I take that vacation, I think, "Man, I'm sure glad Past Self did this nice thing for me!  I think I'll make it a point to say something kind about her!"

That's actually the easy part.  I can look at the choices I'm trained to believe are 'good' and find a reason to consider them self-loving ally acts.  But the other side is hard.  The first time I said, "Hey, self, you know what?  A bowl of ice cream would make you feel happy and cheerful!  Let's have one!" I struggled with the idea that I was 'getting away with' something, that I was validating or justifying a 'bad' choice.

The challenge is to view every single choice I make as active self-support, love, and appreciation.  As my own ally, I have to consider my choices in the light of "Would I want my beloved friend to do it this way?" because I am my beloved friend.  I would want my beloved friend to have a workout that was fun and enjoyable, so that she could become as strong and flexible as she wanted to be.  I would not want my beloved friend to feel shamed and guilty about eating cookies for breakfast.  I would not want my beloved friend to shrink from leadership because she feared assertiveness would cause her to be perceived as less friendly or desirable.  I would want my beloved friend to be proud of her mind and her strength, because she deserves to shine.  I would want my beloved friend to feel she could expose her own vulnerability to people she trusted, because she deserves empathy and support.  I would not want my beloved friend to downplay her own potential because she was afraid of the challenge it presented her.

For many years now, I've ended a lot of my writings with "I love you all," to emphasize my commitment to living a loving life.  I believe it's time for me to change that.

I love us all.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

In Which Being Happy and Being Healthy Are Very Similar

Since I wrote this post about being happy, several people have said to me, "Badger, that sounds well and good, but can you put it into practical terms?

I can, and I'm going to talk about one of my favorite things:  food.  I'm going to lay out my philosophy for having a healthy diet, which is remarkably like my philosophy for having a happy life, and I'll even explain why at the end.

1.  Know your limitations.  This may seem like a downer of a way to start, but when you're looking at building a healthy diet, the first thing you have to do is figure out where to say an absolute 'no' to yourself.  Are  you allergic to any foods?  Do you have any sensitivities, or any conditions like Celiac Disease or lactose intolerance?  Cut out the things that damage you, that should be nourishing you but are attacking you instead.  For now, whether you 'should' do certain things is irrelevant, 'dietary guidelines' are irrelevant.  Simply try to identify all the things that actively harm or poison you, and cut them out of your life.  I, for example, cannot have artificial sweeteners; they give me migraines.  Rather than lamenting my inability to have something most people can have without trouble, I accept that I have a non-negotiable hard boundary that limits me in some small way.  I incorporate that boundary (and a few others) at the foundation of every meal I build and every set of decisions I make about food.  It's part of who I am.

2.  Know your history.  Do you have any addictions?  Any relationship with certain types of food you feel you don't control?  A fear of trying new things?  Do you have a condition like diabetes or high blood pressure, that affects the choices you need to make about food?  Did  your family express love through certain types of foods?  Did your family instill certain 'food rules' in you?  Where, simply put, do the attitudes you manifest come from?  My mother instilled in me at an early age that it's not dinner unless there is a green vegetable included.  I've been able to expand this to things like squash, but if I try to eat just meat and potatoes for dinner, I feel unfulfilled because my internal expectations for 'dinner' haven't been fulfilled, no matter how much I eat.  Learning to acknowledge my expectations and determine whether they're reasonable has been one of the most empowering things in my entire life.

3.  Really understand your goals -- and the goals behind them.  If you ask someone, "Why do you want to lose weight?" you could get back a variety of answers:  to be healthier, to be more attractive, to feel better about myself, my doctor says I have to, I have a really kickass dress my butt is just too wide for...the list is endless.  Sometimes, though, the answer really is, "Because I think I'm supposed to want that."  When you set goals, especially goals based around something as necessary as food, drill down through those goals until you really get to the heart of what motivates you, and make sure that what's motivating you is not, in fact, a set of expectations someone else chose for you.

4.  Make sure your choices are feeding your goals.  If you want to gain or lose weight, if you want to completely change your diet, if you want to become a locavore, if you want to raise your own food, you're going to have to make months, maybe years, of small, sustained choices that lead you to the goal in incremental steps.  If you believe that eating a certain way (paleo, organic, vegan) will bring you a set of benefits you want, then regularly check in with your habits *and* how you're feeling.  Every so often, step back and make sure that your choices are pointing at where you want to be.  If they're not, then either the choices need to change or the goal should be revised.

5.  Will is strong, but so is Science.  If you really really want to subsist on nothing but bacon and vodka, you will get scurvy and eventually die, no matter how much you believe that's a sustainable diet.  It is theoretically possible, through skilled and powerful application of tremendous Will, to bring almost anything to pass -- but if you have that sort of skill and power, why use it to change the molecular makeup of bacon to include Vitamin C when you could just drink a glass of OJ instead, and have all that energy for something else?  If you can use science and reason to your advantage, your Will can achieve more than if you try to fight them.  If, for example, I know that eating high-protein cinnamon-chocolate multi-grain oatmeal will keep me feeling full twice as long as the same number of donut calories, or that certain vitamins improve my absorption and use of other nutrients, then I can use the science to boost the power of my choices.

6.  Listen to your cravings.  Once you really start focusing on feeding yourself what you need, and paying attention to what you put into your body and bring into your life, you'll find you have a lot sharper awareness of what you want.  Generally, even the 'bad' cravings (the ones out of line with your goals) tell you something important, and you can train your body to respond to a need for iron and protein by telling you "I could murder a good steak" instead of "I need a Big Mac."  If you're willing to listen, you will generally tell yourself what you need, and how best to nourish yourself.

7.  Don't eat anything that isn't delicious.  This sounds like a stupid rule, but there are so many ways to have good, tasty, healthy, nourishing food that you should never say to yourself, "It tastes like shit, but it's good for me."  There is no 'good' food and no 'bad' food.  There is "Food that will help get me where I want to be" and "Food that will get in my way."  Never choose penance when there are joyful options.

8.  Make sure you know what you're feeding.  Some things feed your body.  Others feed your mind.  Others feed your spirit.  Ice cream may be a good source of calcium and dairy protein, but I eat it because I love it and it makes my soul happy.  You should not eat anything that doesn't nourish you, but different things will nourish you for different reasons, and once you manage to work out your cravings and listening to your needs, you'll be able to understand what to feed, and when.

Now, it should be fairly obvious how I apply these to both diet and life.  If you start from a position of knowing what it's just not reasonable for you to expect of yourself, and build yourself attainable goals that meet *your* needs, then you start to build healthy practices in focusing your energy where it'll bring you the most joy.  If you shift your life so that everything you bring into it feeds you somehow, nourishes or supports you somehow, then your path becomes much clearer.  And if you make it your daily practice to choose the joyful, nourishing, fulfilling options, you may not ever be completely free of unpleasant obligations, but they'll hold a much smaller space in your heart.

You'll notice there are no details here.  No "always eat organic" or "never eat processed sugary snacks."  That's because there's a different path to health and happiness for each of us, and we have to choose how we'll find it ourselves.  What works brilliantly for me might be poison for my friend, and you can't judge the success of your journey by how well you walk the best path for someone else.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

In Which Courtesy Gives Way to Clarity

I live in a nice quiet apartment complex.  We do not yell.  We do not throw loud parties.  We occasionally drink wine on our balconies and call "Howdy!" to our neighbors as they pass, but we're not Loud People.  When one of us *is* loud, it stands out very clearly.

Today, as I arrived home from the CostCo, I noticed that my neighbor's car alarm was going off.  The woman who lives in the apartment behind me was walking past, and we stopped for a moment, heads cocked like RCA dogs, while we talked about whether or not we thought it likely that the person sticking out of the car was stealing it, or merely unable to silence it.  We decided on the latter.

A few minutes went by.  I could see that the gentleman in question appeared to be taking his door apart, so I figured that he was having some troubles with the electrical system.  I went inside, and the alarm stopped.

Two minutes later, it started again.  The downstairs neighbors' dogs began to bark, which causes the Simple Cat a certain amount of directionless panic.

It went on for a couple of minutes, and stopped.  Then it started again, just as the cats and dogs and badgers had all calmed down.  Three more times, five minutes apiece, then on and on for almost ten minutes.

I sighed, and went out into the light rain.  I walked over to the car and said, "Is everything OK?"

The man half-into the car stood up and looked at me irritably.  The door panel was in pieces.  "Yes."

I said, "Your car was making that noise, so the other neighbor and I were thinking that we'd feel awfully silly if you were stealing it and we just watched you, so I thought I would come over and see."

"If I'm stealing it?"

"Yes.  You don't appear to be."

"Don't people who steal cars usually...TAKE them?"

I nodded.  "Yes, that's the usual way.  But this is Austin.  You could be turning it into an art car.  It doesn't look like that's the case.  You do, however, appear to be taking bits of it apart."

"Yes.  And?"

"Just observing that, and that it keeps making that noise when you do.  Do you need any help fixing your car?"

"No, it's not broken."  I refrained from pointing out that most of the door was hanging off at an unsustainable angle.  The alarm stopped.  I nodded, wished him a nice day, and turned around.  Eight steps later, the alarm went off again.  I turned around and walked back.

"Excuse me?"


"Are you sure your car's OK?"

"Yes, it's perfectly fine.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with it.  Are you sure YOU'RE OK?"

"I'm fine..."

"Great!" he said somewhat sarcastically.

"...which is best evidenced by the fact that I haven't been honking in the parking lot for the last half hour."  I unleashed the +4 Gaze of Asperity over the rims of my glasses at him.


"So, because the 'friendly chat' part of our conversation appears to have failed, allow me to clarify:  please either acknowledge that your car is broken but you are fixing it, or stop making it make that noise.  Because if your car is OK, and this is its normal state, honking and slightly disassembled, then I am going to request that it live elsewhere."

"Oh.  I'm sorry.  Yes, it's broken and I'm fixing it.  I didn't think anyone would notice the noise."

"If I may be blunt, is it likely to keep making that noise for much longer?"

"Uh, no?  I mean, I hope not."

I smiled cheerily at him.  "OK!  Thanks so much!  Enjoy the rest of your evening!"

I skipped back across the parking lot and bopped up the stairs to my apartment, leaving him standing there looking slightly confused, door panel in hand.  It went off twice more, and has been silent for the last hour and a half or so.  I remain boggled as to how you can stand next to your flashing, honking, partially disassembled car and insist that it's perfectly fine and there's not a thing wrong...

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why I am Pro-Life

I have something in common with Planned Parenthood.  We are both pro-life.

It amazes me that people have co-opted that particular term to promote an agenda that does anything but promote life.  I could say a great deal here about how their aim is control and dominance over women, how they use the cloak of enforced morality to create a culture of shame, fear, and powerlessness.

But I won't, because this is not about them.  Enough people talk about them.

Instead, I want to talk about how Planned Parenthood and I are working together to end abortion in the only way possible:  by making it functionally obsolete.

It's a sad reality that no one wants to have an abortion.  No woman gets up one morning and says, "Boy howdy, I'm gonna make a series of choices that will end with me terminating a pregnancy!"  The myth of 'women who use abortion as birth control', who cavalierly and willfully have unprotected sex with abortion as a safety net, kind of befuddles me.  I have never, in two decades of pro-choice activism and even longer just plain hanging out with other women, met anyone who thinks that.

When a woman terminates a pregnancy, it represents a failure somewhere, somehow:

Perhaps it's a failure of education.  Comprehensive sex education would prevent many unplanned pregnancies, simply by drilling the basic biology of conception into us at a young age and ensuring that everyone past the age of puberty knows that penetrative penile-vaginal sex has a strong chance to lead to pregnancy *and* that there are ways to decrease the possibility of it doing so.  We especially need it made clear that many factors can affect a woman's fertility cycle, and that until you fully understand how your own body works, there is no such thing as a 'safe day' for unprotected sex.  We need to overcome the completely wrongheaded idea that you cannot teach young people to be both responsible and joyful about sexual intimacy.

It could also be a failure of access.  A frankly stunning number of women don't have access to safe, effective, low-cost birth control.  Many women cannot use hormonal birth control due to side effects or expense, so they're dependent upon barrier methods.  Many lack affordable healthcare, or the sole pharmacist in their town feels an obligation to enforce morality and refuse to fill a prescription.  Currently, the only options for male birth control in the US are condoms and vasectomy, neither of which is an ideal solution.

Maybe it's a failure of empowerment.  Young women are taught from an early age that they must please the men in their lives, and that can lead them to give in to pressure to have sex before they're emotionally ready, or to have unsafe sex.  Young men get a constant message that the only way to demonstrate manhood is through the display of sexual virility, preferably with multiple women.  Men and women of all ages need to believe that sex is a choice they have the right to make, or not make, wholly on their own terms and for their own reasons.  To be a virgin, to be a slut, to be a committed monogamist or an unashamed polyamorist, to broadcast your sexuality or keep it private, each of us has the right to establish our own sexual identity, and the only people we should be explaining our decisions to are our partners.

It's quite often a failure of resources.  A woman who might otherwise want to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term may find that her job or her education has to be completely derailed, especially in areas where unwed motherhood carries social stigma.  Parents may throw out or refuse to support a child who becomes a parent at the wrong time.  A couple facing an unplanned pregnancy may find themselves unable to financially cope -- not only with raising a child, but even with paying for prenatal care and delivery.  Some people might find adoptive parents to bear those expenses, but especially among minorities it's more likely that they will fall into the gap of 'too poor to afford it, but not poor enough for welfare'.

There are other, darker failures.  We have not ended rape in this country or any other.  We have not ended domestic abuse.  We have not ended human trafficking.  In each of those situations, a pregnancy can be a tie that binds you to the one who brutalized you, and in more than thirty states a rapist can sue for visitation of the child he fathered.  Abusive husbands are finding sympathetic courts to grant them visitation even when the abuse is documented, and there are advocates for laws that would allow an abuser to block his victim's abortion.  We have not ended molestation, or incest.  We do not protect those who cannot protect themselves from predators.  The 'Morning After' pill is not fully accessible, and carries many of the same side effects as hormonal birth control, but it's currently the only option for a woman who's been raped and is afraid she might get pregnant.

Some of our failures are medical.  Women who don't get good prenatal care are at higher risk of developing complications that can require the termination of a pregnancy.  We do not diagnose and address potential problems with the mother's body or her health before they become critical.  Our screening techniques for genetic predisposition to fatal birth defects aren't good enough.  We don't have options to support parents who are facing a lifetime with a disabled child and unsure of their ability to cope, or the therapies to treat many common birth defects.

Abortion, by and large, represents solvable social and technical problems, and I stand with Planned Parenthood and with those who wish to solve them:  by advocating for comprehensive sexual education at all levels of schooling; by advocating for and funding access to safe, low-cost birth control for all women; by supporting those seeking to develop better birth control options for men; by seeking to empower men and women BOTH to make responsible and informed decisions about sex and relationships; by providing better resources to those facing an unplanned pregnancy; by breaking down the social stigma applied to single motherhood; by fighting to eradicate rape, domestic abuse, human trafficking, molestation, and incest; by ensuring that everyone has low-cost, readily accessible prenatal care; by improving our understanding of pregnancy and gestation; and by improving our diagnosis, treatment, and support for potential birth defects.  And in the meantime, while we solve those problems, I stand with Planned Parenthood to fight to keep abortion safe, and legal, and accessible.

We will never end abortion by legislating against it, and I genuinely do not understand how anyone really believes we can.  In fact, given that bodies are odd things and medicine is an imperfect science, it's likely we'll never fully eradicate the need to terminate a pregnancy.  But we can create a culture of education, empowerment, and equality, in which sex is an enthusiastic and joyful sharing between partners who understand and embrace its potential to create life, and who have the tools and knowledge to choose whether or not to fulfill that potential.  In that culture, there will be no need to outlaw abortion because we'll have made it functionally obsolete.

Whenever someone tells me he or she is pro-life, if they do not support the agenda of obsolescence, then I consider them to be fundamentally mistaken about their proper title.  They are anti-choice, but they understand precious little about what it means to improve and celebrate life.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In Which I am Collateral Damage

You know, in the last week, I've been called racist, intolerant, hypocritical, sexist, judgmental, naive, stupid, and hateful.

Oh, not me personally.  You didn't mean me.  You never meant *me* (except maybe one person, who can go to hell anyway).  You would never say those things about your friend Badger, of course.  And when I say, "you hit me with that shotgun blast, there," all I get back is a vague explanation that "it's different."

You meant those other people, with your broad-based polemics.  I am not a delusional, misguided child for believing in a divinity; those other people who believe in THAT god are.  I am not a narrow-minded body-shaming fat hater; those other people who talk about the importance of exercise and good food are.  I am not a racist; those other people who say that race relations are too complicated to be explained in simplistic terms are.  I am not a hypocrite; those other people whose morality is nuanced and based in more than yes or no perfectly consistent logic are.  I am not a sexist; those other people who call out patterns of interaction in gender relations and find problems with them are.  I am not a homophobe; those other people who support civil marriage are.  I am neither a gun nut nor a gun control nut; those people who believe in sensible restrictions without unnecessarily curbing the rights of others are apparently both.

*I* am not stupid; those people are.

But...the line between me and 'those people' seems to be that I am on your side, politically, and they are not. You've Othered them quite handily, using broad statements to explain why they're Just Plain Wrong, inferior and not deserving of basic respect, courtesy, or civility.  From where I am standing, though, I can see their perspective and it's really not that alien.  You've just taken no more time to really understand it than they've taken to understand yours, and while you feel justified in dismissing them unheard once you've classified them as 'thinking wrong', when they treat you the same way you use it as further evidence of their narrow-minded inferiority.

I don't believe in Othering people.  I don't like it.  And a large part of the reason that I don't like it is based in what's happening in my culture.  We divide into armed camps and defend them with lobbed philosophy.  We create classes of people based on thinking, and we dismiss and ridicule 'anyone who could ever think that way'.  Well, on my way to the 'right' opinion I appear to have walked down some 'wrong' hallways, and found value in what I learned there.  Rather prophetically, yesterday's Free Will Astrology e-mail contained a discussion of how it is possible to learn from people who do or think things you don't approve of.  If we only learned from people who agreed with us 100%, Rob tells me, we'd never learn anything.  I couldn't agree more, but this appears to have left me somewhat tainted, and likely to find myself the unintended target of my friends' scorn.

The brush we paint Other People with gets broader every year, as we pull further and further from open, reasoned discourse.  We divide into smaller and smaller groups, with each group priding itself on intellectual or philosophical purity for having come to the 'right' conclusions.  We present false dichotomies to marginalise others' opinions, reducing them to "Well, either you're stupid and I win, or you're a liar and I win."  We create point-scoring nit-picky arguments that fit into captions and onto bumper stickers.  Arguments small enough to fit on a bumper sticker cannot possibly be large enough to explore the complexity created by widely divergent cultures trying to find a living peace with one another under one government.  And when we reduce by furious application of heat and pressure, we lose the most delicate elements of that interaction first:  compassion, kindness, civility, reasoned understanding.

I spent almost an hour before I fell asleep last night, reading over people's increasingly defensive and dismissive answers to my conversations with them.  I went to bed hurt, angry, and sick to my stomach.  If you're one of those people, and you're waiting for an answer from me, this is what you're getting:  no more.  I cannot engage to defend myself against your friendly fire any more today.  Maybe another day, but don't hold your breath.  You're applying opinions by Uzi, spraying poorly-formed and fast-moving bullets of thought in the general direction of those you perceive as enemies.

And you're badly wounding those of us trying to stand on common ground.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

On Social Predators and the Abuse of Safe Spaces

There's been a lot of talk lately about Creepy Guys and sexual harassment/assault.  A couple of conversations I've had recently have made me want to make something terribly clear, and explain why it is a large part of the problem.  It's not necessarily the Creepy Guys who break social rules that are problematic.  It's the ones that *follow* them, using them as tools of predation, that make others feel most unsafe.

Throughout my adult life, I've spent most of my time in communities where I was in some way tasked with the safety or conduct of the members of the community.  Online and off, I've been given progressively increasing levels of authority to address the problems of how people treat one another.  And I keep hitting a situation that makes me sadder, and angrier, every single time:

A community develops around a shared idea of openness, respect, and tolerance.  Its members, anxious to preserve a space where people are not judged and ostracized for nontraditional choices, codify that respect and openness into rules for the community.  They appoint people they feel are level-headed and understanding to judge, and maybe reprimand, violations of those rules.  It all goes swimmingly well, because most of what people require is to have pointed out to them that their actions were harmful or disrespectful.  We all do, after all, want the same open space in which we can exchange ideas, and being a jerk gets in the way of that.  For some period of time, we have this excellent space in which we can speak freely and be ourselves.

Into this space comes a predator (I will use 'he' for grammatical clarity, but it isn't necessarily a man).  He sees the structure of the community, and he uses it.  Maybe he strikes up friendships with people in authority.  Maybe he does a lot of work for the group, or picks a side on a cause important to someone within the community.  In an online community, he'll 'like' or upvote the comments of someone susceptible to flattery.  In an offline community, he'll be everyone's buddy and always there to buy a round or take on that unpleasant task.  He has sad stories about the mistreatment at the hands of another group (or groups), maybe a tale of how he made a powerful enemy who poisoned the community and drove him out.  He says things like, "It's so wonderful to be here, where I can be myself, without being judged or belittled."

All the while he does this, he preys on the community.  He builds goodwill and uses it to get favors, trust, money, information.  He takes sexual advantage of community members, or harasses them.  In an online community I frequented, a predator sent me (a community Admin) increasingly nasty sexual fantasies despite my repeated requests for him to stop -- often alongside the same chat room where the two of us were having an apparently civil conversation with several other members of the community.  Within the community, where we had the actual power of established rules, he never stepped out of line and he had some fairly influential friends who defended him as 'socially awkward'.  But around its edges, he drove multiple women away from the group entirely and we could not make him stop.  He acted where we did not have power, and obeyed the rules we had set.  Eventually, I simply blocked him in chat, and ultimately I left the community for a lot of reasons -- quite a few of which can be boiled down to "I did not have the power to tell someone to stop being an asshole, as long as he was an asshole according to the rules and someone was willing to defend him."

In pagan community, we see it as well.  Unwelcome touches around a fire ring, suspicious effects of beverages that *might* just be chalked up to a newbie who didn't know her tolerance, someone who 'wears down' a no until it becomes a "well, OK, maybe."  When we catch it, we call it out, but the predators are so careful to follow the letter of the law.  They're not being overt, they're doing something that just might be an innocent mistake.  We say, "That's not 'a misunderstanding', it's bad conduct," and he says, "OK, now I know," and changes his tack slightly

After several events, we can say "This is a pattern and you don't have a place in this community," but at that point he changes his craft name from RavenSong MoonFlower to RavenMoon SongFlower, and joins a different community to tell a fresh tale of woe and start over again (apologies to any actual RavenSong MoonFlowers or RavenMoon SongFlowers; I don't mean you).  The anonymity that protects a small-town schoolteacher against losing her job protects him as well, because I can't call the safety folks from other festivals and say, "Hey, let me send you a picture of this guy who did this thing," without violating the trust the community has placed in me to protect their identities.  Unlike Readercon, we can't name names openly and I don't know that I would, if we could.  That's a pretty big can of worms.

In the con, fandom, or Rennie communities, he hides out next to the people with Asperger's or legitimate social awkwardness.  They don't see or don't understand social cues, and he ignores them, so from a distance they look the same.  The differences are hard to spot if you're not familiar with some of the conditions, though this article by Arabella Flynn offers some good information about it.

And there is some protection in geeky or 'outsider' communities for people with a legitimate reason to be socially awkward.  No one wants to yell at the kid with Asperger's to stop STARING at you, for fuck's sake, because it's really goddamned creepy -- and just as importantly, no one wants to be seen as the sort of person who'd do that to someone who didn't know better.  So, when people talk about creepy or socially invasive behaviour, the people who defend those who can't help it also end up defending those who are hiding behind them, and the predator gets off watching people try and stop him while others challenge them as discriminatory and intolerant.  When word finally gets around, he's off to another con, another faire, another group.

The communities are different, but the MO remains the same:  use the exact rules intended to create a safe and nonjudgmental space to create a space where you're safe to abuse others at the expense of community harmony.  Exploit the social politics of the infrastructure to position yourself as an unfair target.  Escape the consequences of your actions by abusing the policies that protect innocent people, and move on when it stops being fun.

So, what do we do?  That's the hard part.  I don't really know, and I don't think any one thing will suffice.  We need clearer stated rules.  We need to understand that we have both the right and responsibility to communicate our boundaries.  We need to support those around us when we see that someone is not respecting a boundary, by saying "Hey, didn't she just tell you not to do that?  Why are you still doing it?" loudly and clearly.  We need to stop being so afraid of the idea of judging others that we allow ourselves to be manipulated by even the accusation of intolerance.

Ultimately, we need a cultural change in which predatory behaviour finds no purchase, where someone who disrespects others' boundaries finds himself quickly called out and corrected on multiple fronts.  And if he refuses correction, let him be shunned.  It gets hard to serially prey on communities if you never make it past the first night of a festival, the first day of a con or a faire, the first few weeks in an online community, before someone says to you, "Stop abusing the trust of this space.  Now," and refuses to tolerate you.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

On Harvests and the Agriculture of Life

The Wheel is divided into parts, and each part offers a chance to contemplate a different area of life.  Over the past week, I've been thinking about my life and its harvests, and the harvests I see being collected around me.

Lughnasadh represents the beginning of the harvest season, but here in Austin we've been harvesting for months and are into our second planting season by August, so it's hard to view it strictly as a celebration of the bounty of the field.  We've become so out of touch with the cycles of the land anyway, that few of us really live the rhythms of agriculture -- but life can still be understood by its rules.

The first rule of agriculture is that your harvest depends on what was planted.  Just as you can't plant thistles and expect them to produce blueberries, you can't sow hatred or discord and expect to reap love and happiness.

What this means, practically, is that choices have consequences.  It seems like a lot of people wrestle with this idea.  They seem to understand in the abstract that their choices may turn out badly, but they're always surprised when they do.  For example, as Dan Cathy of Chick-Fil-A has learned this week, having your right to an opinion doesn't mean you have a right to an unchallenged opinion.  As most of the country seems to be learning in one way or another, choosing to voice your opinion may in fact result in criticism from people who don't agree with you.

It's not just about politics, though.  I see people in my life who scatter love and positivity wherever they go, who seek to live with integrity, to make sure that those around them feel valued and respected, and I see them living not necessarily easier or happier lives, but lives in which they also feel valued and respected.  I see people who choose kindness receiving help when they need it, and people who choose derision or scorn left to their own devices in need.  Most of all, lately, I see that many people around me are living out the set of relationships and circumstances they themselves built.  It's tough for me to say if I am; it's a hard thing to look at objectively.  I know that some things are direct results of choices I've made, but in some parts of my life I can't really tell what's consequence and what's coincidence, and it's possible some of the things I've been tending as my planted flowers are actually just pretty weeds.

Those pretty weeds benefit from the second rule of agriculture:  what thrives, was tended.  In the wild, what thrives is what's strongest, most adaptable, most hardy.  But in the garden, we use different selection criteria and the things that do well are the things we treat with care.  If you neglect your work, your career will suffer.  If you neglect your social life, your friendships will suffer.  If you neglect your body, your health will suffer.  If you want any element of your life to especially flourish, it requires careful attention and management of your resources, but that flourishing may come at the expense of other parts of your life.

A versatile and useful farm has many different sorts of plants.  It has staples like corn or wheat or potatoes, that provide the basic blocks of the diet.  It has green vegetables, to provide vital nutrients.  It has fruit for sweetness, herbs for variety, and flowers for beauty.  It has fall crops like squash, to keep into the winter.  It has winter crops like kale or asparagus, to provide fresh vegetables in the darker months.  It has livestock not only for meat and milk and clothing, but also for manure to renew the soil.  A farmer whose land provided more than enough food might choose to turn some acreage to flax or cotton or hemp, to indigo for dye, or to sugar cane.  A farmer who focused on one crop to the exclusion of anything else, though, would soon find that he was mightily tired of potatoes and lacking some pretty important nutritional components.  He'd be dependent upon his neighbors' prosperity and willingness to trade for his own excess.

A versatile and useful life also has many different elements.  You have to have some staple, some means of keeping the lights on and the roof over your head:  a source of income.  You have to blend family and friends, dreams and needs, art and health, all into some sort of existence.  If you focus on any one area to the exclusion of others, you'll find that your job is going brilliantly but your health is suffering, or your friendships are strong but your creative urges are being ignored.  Like a farmer, you have to find ways to make it all work together, to give the elements of your life the right amount of attention, to carefully tend the things you most want to see bloom.  And if there's something in your life that you don't want there, that you've tried to pull out or kill unsuccessfully, then the only way to be rid of it is to stop tending it: cut off its access to water, to food, to sunlight, and give it no further attention.

Companion planting allows farmers to use fewer resources to get the most.  Tomatoes will thrive if you plant them near basil; with careful planning you can combine areas of your life to greater effect.  If you can manage to be creative in your profession, your career will feed your soul in addition to your pocketbook.  If you and your partner support one another in healthy lifestyle choices, your relationship and your physical health will benefit one another.  Wherever you can find ways to make one part of your life improve your tending of another part, your entire quality of life gets better.

While it's true that what thrives is tended, it's not true that everything you tend will thrive.  That comes from the third rule of agriculture:  we do not run this show.

We are all dependent upon things and people external to us.  Here in Austin, we know very well that nothing grows if it does not rain.  You can collect rainwater, you can irrigate, you can choose drought-tolerant plants, but you simply cannot keep things alive without water by sheer love and force of will.  We do not choose where the hurricane will make landfall, we cannot take another driver's wheel and turn him from our path.

Even more than that, we can't control the lives and choices of those around us.  They may disappoint us, they may make choices that we would rather they didn't.  They might have different politics or priorities, not value the things we value, and disregard things we consider of paramount importance.

I cannot make others love me (or anyone else).  I can't force compassion and tolerance to manifest in my community.  I can't dictate the policies that will guide my country to economic stability and success.  I can't keep aggression and the will to dominate from driving people to war.  Those things will happen, and they will upset my careful plans.  Like locusts or flooding, they destroy my garden and force me to scramble to support myself while I start over.  If I have planned well, I have enough resources -- in money, in friends and family, in stored energy and sheer perseverance -- to rebuild a better garden with the lessons I have learned.  If I have not, or if I am unlucky enough to face multiple disasters together, then I'm in for a lean winter and maybe longer.

It's hard, now, when the sun bakes down in triple-digit temperatures, to think about the winter.  It's hard to look at each harvest and think that it's what I have to sustain me through the dark times.  I see loving relationships I've tended these last years, slowly increasing financial stability, a living space still more lair than home, a job that meets my needs but does not feed my soul, a mind I'm sharpening every day with books and thoughts and intelligent friends, and creativity I'm only just now learning to nurture, and I consider the decisions I have made this last season.

There's a temptation to, as one gathers the harvest, immediately begin thinking about the next year's planting, how I will do better in the next year.  But I can't know, for some time, if what I have is sufficient for my needs.  All I can do now, as I gather my bounty, is consider what part of it comes directly from the choices I've made and the care I've given, and what part of it comes from things I did not anticipate.  Long before I can ever begin to choose next year's seeds, I have to devote my full energy to learning the lesson's this year's growth has taught me.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

On Birthdays, Presents, and Presence

Tomorrow (Monday) is my thirty-ninth birthday.  I don't feel thirty-nine, but I don't know how thirty-nine is supposed to feel, so maybe I do feel it?

People ask me if I'm afraid of 40.  I'm not sure what it's supposed to do, so I'm not, but perhaps that will change in the next year.  I can never know.  So far, the thirties have been much better than the twenties, so the forties should be even more wonderful.

The other big question is "What do you want for your birthday?"  In my family, much is made of giving people things they will both use and enjoy.  My mother and sister usually give me new clothes, and my father gives me giftcards to places he knows I will use them.  Most of my friends give me weird things they thought of me when they saw.  All of this is much appreciated.  But none of it is required.

Now, Miss Manners has much to say on the subject of receiving gifts, asking for gifts, and telling people you do not require gifts.  And while I tend to agree that there's really no way to word "No gifts, please" in a way that does not sound like "I assume you want to buy me things," in our culture that assumption *is* the expectation.  Also?  I do really like to get presents.  I almost never fail to be delighted by the simple fact that someone thought of me and spent time or money to give me something they thought would make me happy.  My nephew colored me a card yesterday, and it made me unreasonably happy because it was just so nifty and unexpected.

But I'm never hurt or upset when I don't get a present from someone.  It just means that nothing leaped up and said, "Hey, she needs one of these!"  However, I've been told by several people that I should give better guidance than "Well, sure, if you want, then something nifty?"

The problem is that I so do not need stuff.  I need less stuff, not more stuff.  I have a one-bedroom apartment that is already full to bursting with stuff, and this year's project is to significantly reduce my stuff (I have already thrown out five gallons of unused bath products, for example).  So, there's a pretty small space in my world for physical things as gifts.  I have, instead, come up with a short list of things that would make good gifts.  Some of them are 'things for me' and some of them are 'things it would make me happy to have happen':

1.  Give me a moment of your life's beauty.  Tell me a story about when you were happy, show me a picture of someplace you went that fed your soul, talk to me about the things that you really love.

2.  Tell someone, not necessarily me, how much they mean to you.  If there's a person in your life that you rely on, that you trust absolutely, that you love more than you can possibly describe, then *try* to describe it, and give that description to them.  You don't have to tell me who, or what you said, but let me know you did it and that will make me smile.

3.  Do an anonymous kindness for someone who doesn't expect it.  Pay a restaurant tab, send someone a card with a note that says "I admire how kind you are," quietly slip a twenty in the tip jar at your favorite coffeehouse.  Again, you don't have to tell me who or what, just that you did something nice and made someone else smile.

4.  Surprise birthday coffee.  Sometime in the next year, but not actually on my birthday, call me up and say, "Surprise!  I would like to take you out for a long birthday coffee chat!"

5.  Create something for me.  Draw me a picture or tell me a story or write me a poem.  They don't have to be elaborate; a silly limerick about badgers or a picture you drew on the bus one day would delight me.

6.  Livestock.  Specifically, Heifer International.  You can get shares for as little as $10, and the idea that somewhere in the world exist "Badger's Birthday Bees" or a "Badger's Birthday Ducks" would please me greatly.

7.  If you really wish to get me a thing I can use, then a gift certificate for a deep apartment cleaning or one of those services that helps you organise your life would be greatly appreciated.  I'm making headway, but it's slooooow.  Friends have offered to help, but strangers would be easier for me to manage right now.

Now, this doesn't mean that if you saw the perfect t-shirt or book or whatever for me, and have been saving it for my birthday, I don't want it.  I'll be happy to make flaily squeeing noises and love it forever.  But our culture is such that "It's a birthday, I have to find a present" is pervasive even when no present is needed or required to communicate "I love you and am glad to have you in my life."

Every year I wrestle with how to say, "If you want to give me something for my birthday, give me a better, kinder, more loving world, where people take a little more time for each other, and where wonderful things happen to people who don't know they deserve them."

This, I think, is the best I can do.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

On Batman, Mayhem, and Respecting the Living

In December of 2004, a man walked into the Alrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio and opened fire.  He killed the lead singer of the band, and several others, before a police officer came in through a side door and fatally shot him.  He still had several dozen rounds on him when he died, and no reason to believe he would stop shooting.

Hundreds of miles away in Kansas the next morning, I awoke to the news, thinking of it as a passing tragedy, maybe considering the sad state of affairs in gun culture and offering a quick thought for the families.  I really don't remember.  Until I opened up my LiveJournal and saw the questions begin.

"Hey, wasn't that the band Mayhem worked for?"
"Wasn't Mayhem doing security for those guys?"
"The police are reporting a member of their security team was killed.  Does anyone know who it was?"

Then, over and over for hours:

"Has anyone talked to or heard from Mayhem today?"

No, no one had and no one would.  Jeff "Mayhem" Thompson, head of security for the band Damageplan, had been shot trying to tackle the shooter while the band ran offstage to safety.  He had not survived.

Jeff was also a longtime performer at the Scarborough Renaissance Festival, and had come many times to fight and play and perform at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival over the years I'd been part of that community.  I cannot claim I knew him well but I respected him immensely.  He had been kind to me at every meeting, and many of my close friends looked upon him as a friend and brother.  Our festival family was devastated.

Grief is a very private thing.  We all experience it in our own way, and usually we're allowed to deal with that loss on our own terms and at our own discretion.  But when the person you're grieving is part of a public tragedy, you're not allowed that space or that privacy, because everyone else wants to own a piece of your grief.

At first, this was deeply comforting.  We would see pictures of candles and flowers left for our friend, and think, "He's gone, but his passing and his life are being honored by thousands."  There is a comfort in seeing that people in other states, other countries, acknowledge and honor someone who mattered to you.

But then, as is the way of this nation, pain becomes pawn in a terrible game of political chess.  From every side it came, the assertions that 'someone in that club with a gun could have saved those lives' balanced by strident insistence that somehow a law could have been written to restrict gun ownership just enough to prevent it entirely.

For weeks I could not open a web browser without being assaulted by people using my community's very real pain as a justification for their personal politics.  When I tried to say, "That was my friend, please have a little respect for those who mourn him," I got, "Well, then, don't you wish more people had agreed with me so your friend wouldn't be dead?"

He wasn't a political symbol, and should not have become one.  He was the reason I carried one kind of no-chocolate cookies in my cookie basket every weekend of festival.  He was the man whose chest I ran full-tilt into, crying so badly I could not see, on a very bad day indeed.  He said nothing, just looked down, furrowed his brow, and enveloped me in a massive hug until the sobs subsided, then let me go on my way.  No words, just kindness and unconditional comfort.

He was a real person, beloved by many, many people who could not even grieve him privately without some talking head pontificating on an inescapable news channel about whose fault his death really was, the right-wing gun nuts or the left-wing gun control nuts.

His death was the fault of the man who pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger, the man who for whatever reason decided large-scale violence was the answer to his pain.  No one else, ultimately, is to blame.

Thursday night's tragedy brought a great deal of this back to me, and if I've been sharp with you in the intervening time understand that this is why.  People are dead.  Real people.  People who were loved and cared for, people who were central to their communities, people who left behind unspoken words and unfinished deeds.  And in their wake, families pray for loved ones to recover, for the death toll not to rise, for a child to walk again or a sister to breathe without the ventilator.  They do not care about your politics, but in the coming weeks, they will not be able to escape them.

It had not even been hours before people I had thought better of began to take sides, squaring off in smug justification of their personal politics.  "No one needs to own that gun."  "This is clear evidence it should be banned."  "If there had been someone there with a gun, they could have saved all those lives."  "This is the fault of Americans and their rabid gun culture.  Those people are savages."  "This is what happens when you disarm the innocent people and not the guilty ones."

If you see your own words here, it's because they cut me to the bone.

The shooter was a person.  His victims were people.  Their families, and his family, are people.  It becomes incredibly easy to lose sight, when we have an agenda bit between our teeth, of the fact that we may be speaking to someone struggling to hide a private grief, someone who would rather hear words of compassion and comfort than the ones we are speaking.

It takes only a second to snicker smugly and post that captioned picture on a Facebook.  It takes only a moment to cut and paste an advocacy status that turns someone else's desperate grief to our own service.  But it takes years for those hurt by those words and images to reconcile private grief and public behaviour.

So as you speak in the coming days, remember that you can't know who your words are reaching, and how badly they wound.  Remember that for many people this is not an abstract exercise in political theory.  Remember that your words have incredible power, that they can wound and they can heal, and choose wisely what you will do with them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On Being Happy

My parents separated when I was 13 and divorced not long after.  This is not exactly about that.

After the divorce, my mother fell into a deep depression, from which she emerged some two years later, walking into my room to announce, "You know what?  You can't depend on someone else to make you happy.  You have to make you happy.  I'm going to the Food Barn.  Do you want some ice cream?"

I thought, at the time, that I understood what she was saying, but I was still angry with my parents and the entire rest of the world.  It took me a good fifteen years to fully internalize that lesson, to grasp it for myself.  It took me just about that long to really forgive my father and my stepmother for what I saw as a brutal betrayal of my mother and our family.  That the transition to understanding was accompanied by life-changing pain of my own, as well as by the setting aside of my own anger and self-righteousness, is probably significant.

The key to happiness doesn't lie in a new love, a new job, a new house, a new city.  It doesn't have anything to do with the things you have in your life.  The path to happiness is internal.

There's a meme that goes around that says, "Are you happy?  No?  Then change something."  It's true, but most people seem to think that 'change something' is entirely external.  They assign their unhappiness to their jobs, or their relationships, where they're living.  Everything will be fine once they get the promotion, find that perfect girlfriend or boyfriend, or make that fresh start.

And you know, it is.  For the first little while when you make big changes, when you choose a new path, everything falls into place.  It all seems to be working, coming together.  There's a New Relationship Energy that goes with life changes major or minor.  It can prevent you from seeing that the things that made you unhappy before are still there.  Slowly, gradually, they creep back in and ruin everything again.

You're still going to have trouble at work if you resent authority, or if you're not doing a job you feel is worth your time.  Your relationships will continue to fail if you can't love yourself or see yourself as deserving of another person's love.  Leaving your faith for a new path won't bring you peace if you still carry the conflict inside you.  Whatever pain, or fear, or disappointment you're running from will keep chasing you until you stand and face it.  You will be no happier six states away, because the first thing you pack when you leave home is your emotional baggage.

So, is it all hopeless?

Not remotely.  But you have to be willing to face yourself in the mirror and give yourself the power and the responsibility for your own happiness.

If you want to be happy professionally, you must either find a way to do what you love, or learn to love what you do.  This may mean a new degree, or it may mean a new attitude.  It may mean an honest assessment of your skills and your abilities.  It can mean an acceptance that you will never be an astronaut or a professional wrestler, but that doesn't mean you can't find a career that lets you soar in your own way.

If you want to be happy in love, you have to begin by loving yourself and acknowledging that you have a fundamental right to be loved.  This doesn't mean the child's petulant demand for validation in another person as your 'right'; it means a real understanding of the full worth of the person you are, and a deep, genuine love of self that flows outwards from you to everyone you meet.  You don't 'deserve' love like a dog deserves a treat.  You deserve love like you deserve oxygen.

If you left your faith in resentment and anger, slamming a door on your beliefs as you abandoned them, you'll chafe just as much under new gods or no gods at all.  Faith or the leaving of it can be a path to happiness, but only if you're willing to own that the path itself wasn't inherently at fault, that choices you made that were at odds with (or even in line with) that path were at the root of your unhappiness on it.  You can't blame gods for failing to make you happy against your best efforts.

If you're running, you need to understand that your fear, your pain, your disappointment, your PAST carries the key to your happiness and you must stop, turn, and demand that key.  This can be the scariest one of all.  The parent who left, the bully who threatened, the abuse or the abandonment, they follow us for as long as we keep running.  This is also one of the most seductive paths to unhappiness:  If I can just get far enough away, bury myself deeply enough in a new life or another person, you think, then the past will lose my scent and leave me alone.  It doesn't; it always finds you, but the day you stand and face it, admit what's happened to you, forgive those who hurt you, and forgive yourself for being hurt, the past's power over you starts to weaken and you don't ever have to run again.

The striving towards happiness is a mindset.  It's a consistent path of conscious choices.  Every day, I get up and decide to keep being happy.  When I face a trial, I weigh my options based on which is most in keeping with my own path to happiness.  When depression strikes, the path that leads out of it is the path of trying to make every day just a little bit happier than the one before it, until I can find my way back to equanimity.

The other part of being happy is understanding that it's a state of being more than a state of mind.  I can be sad, be in a bad mood, feel frustrated with my life, and still be a happy person.  I try not to lose sight of the fact that my life is a good place, even when it's not exactly as I want it to be.  I am surrounded by loving people, I am trusted by people worthy of respect, and I have many opportunities to grow, to succeed, and to change the world around me.  And even on the very worst days, that's still a pretty happy place to be.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

In Which I Am the Only Person In America Who Did Not Know Anderson Cooper Was Gay

One of the biggest pieces of non-news to hit the Internet over the last several days is that CNN's Anderson Cooper has come out as gay.  It meets the description of non-news for two reasons:  first, that it doesn't seem to have surprised really anyone and second, that the sexual orientation of a news reporter should not, in itself, be news.

I understand why it is, even beyond the whole fascination we have with people's bedrooms.  Mr. Cooper is a successful public figure, who has demonstrated tremendous character and no small amount of courage in his professional career.  Not only has he been covering warzones, there was the much-publicized clip of him setting down his camera, in effect setting down his role as impartial journalist, to grab an injured child and carry him to safety.  He is admired by a lot of people for his tenacity and intellect.  I like to think that a gay child could look at him and see the potential for success and respect that has nothing to do with, but is not hampered by, homosexuality.  He has been a voice for equality, and now he can be an open role model.  And, of course, the more people come out and say, "Hey, I'm gay, deal with it," the closer we can get to this NOT being a big deal.  I am very, very glad he has spoken up, and done so with the words he used.

Many, many people have covered the "Someday I sure hope this stops being a big deal," angle, far better than I have, but the other half of it, the "Of course I knew that" half of it, is going generally unremarked.

All over my newsfeeds, my facebook, and my LJ, people are saying, "Well, he's been setting off my gaydar for years."  So, let me get this straight (no pun intended).  For years now, you've been making unfounded judgments about the sexuality of someone you've never met, just by looking at him on the television?  What was it?  Did he 'dress gay'?  'Talk gay'?  Was it some sort of hand movement or gestural thing?  A lisp, perhaps, that I never noticed?  No, seriously, tell me how you 'knew' a perfect stranger was gay, and why you were thinking about it in the first place.

Perhaps I am sensitive on this because I've never had functional gaydar.  I can't tell at all what another person's sexual preference is, and I've never been able to.  It used to bother me, in that "Other people know something I don't know and I feel like the butt of the joke for getting it last," sort of way.  It doesn't any more, because I came to understand that unless I actively want to sleep with someone, I don't actually care what his sexual preference is, on the personal level.

Do I care on the social and legal levels?  Absolutely.  My friends' sexuality matters to me if it's important to them, and because I want to know that they enjoy the same rights and privileges I do -- beyond that it's really just a matter of logistics and conversational pronouns as far as I'm concerned.  Because, you know, one of the privileges I enjoy as a straight person is that people do not feel entitled to make random judgments about my preference of partners based on some nebulous set of behaviours or appearance criteria they can't explain.  I'd sure like that one to be universal.

Perhaps I'm also sensitive about it because I've been on the receiving end of incorrect gaydar for most of my adult life.  I have lost count of the number of times I have been assumed to be a lesbian.  My usual response is "Oh, no, I'm straight" (and a polite 'thank you' if the assumption was coming from a woman hitting on me).  Mostly, that drops the issue, but I'm occasionally asked, "Really?  Are you sure?  Because you give off a really different vibe."  These are people who would never dream of asking a lesbian, "Really?  Are you sure you're not into men?"

It is somewhat of a double standard.  These people, the ones saying "Of course I always just knew it, it was so obvious," would be OUTRAGED if, for example, a teacher assumed an effeminate young man or a tomboyish girl preferred same-sex relationships.  They get (rightfully) up in arms when guys who happen to like their long hair get called 'faggot' by the ignorant.  But they see absolutely no contradiction in assigning sexual preference themselves without confirmation.  I don't get that.

By the way, I've been asked how I manage my own assumptions regarding sexual preference.  It's pretty easy.  If you've never clearly stated your sexual preference to me yourself, in my head I assign you a nebulous potential bisexuality.  Might like men, might like women.  Might like both.  Might like neither.  Might be Captain Jack Harkness.  You just never know.

And as a number of gentlemen of my acquaintance can attest, if it becomes personally relevant I have no reluctance to simply clear the air and ask the question.  It started off as compensation for my lack of gaydar, but it's become more of a rejection of the notion that there's any way to really know anything about another person's sex life he didn't tell you himself, and an advocacy for the idea that open communication will always trump assumptions based on interpretations of social cues.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

In Which I Get Scared But Am Not Fearful

Apparently, I am supposed to be scared, unless you ask the women I met on the trail in Oregon.

Thursday, I spent all day driving around to wineries, tasting wine and taking pictures and talking to new people.  Friday, I took off for a couple of local hiking trails and saw some beautiful sights while getting exercise and fresh air.  I spent Friday evening curled up in a fancypance hotel-provided monogrammed fluffy robe in a comfy four-poster bed, listening to the waterfall outside my open window and eating toffee almonds.  Saturday I had room-service breakfast in bed and a massage.  None of this seems particularly perilous to me.

But no small few of the people I know have expressed surprise that I would ever consider doing what I was doing: vacationing alone.

"Aren't you a little worried about being out there by yourself?"
"What will you do if something happens?"

To most of them, I sort of play dumb.  "Worried?  No, I'm pretty self-sufficient.  Why?  Have you heard something about the area?  If something happens, I'll have my cell phone and I can call 911."  But the real kicker, the important question, the question that is the answer explaining why I am asked all these questions:

"Isn't it dangerous for a woman to do that in this day and age?"

I've gotten several variations on it, from friends or co-workers or people I meet.  On this trip, I talked to several of my fellow travelers about how nice it is not to be beholden to someone else's schedule, and a lot of the women said things like, "Oh, I could never do that.  I would be afraid to be on my own."  The men don't even appear to have considered the dangers of solo travel.  No suggestion that they ever consider it dangerous or worrisome to be out 'on their own' without a partner or a buddy.

While hiking Friday, I ran into two lovely women on the trail.  They passed me while I was trying to get a picture lined up properly, and later when I came around a curve, they greeted me with, "Oh, there's the photographer again!  Hello photographer!"  They introduced themselves as Kathy and Sue, we chatted briefly, and they asked if I was hiking by myself.  I explained that I was vacationing, and therefore hiking, solo and loving it.  The two of them smiled and said, "Good for you!"  They walked on a bit, and then I met them on their return.  They advised me to add a half-mile to my hike, to see a really excellent waterfall, and I said, "Hey, I wanted to thank you.  People have told me that it's crazy to travel alone, that I should be scared, and I really appreciate that you were enthusiastic and supportive."  They said they understood, that they hear a lot of "Women can't travel alone!" themselves.  Kathy said that she does almost all her traveling alone, and it's wonderful because you can be completely self-indulgent with scheduling and planning and everything else (like how I could take up the whole hotel bed and all four fluffy pillows).

I saw it as yet another example of how women are trained to be afraid.  How we're told that we should not do things we want to do because of the unspoken threat that we will end up raped and left for dead in the woods.  How often the response to a woman doing something self-sufficient or autonomous is an almost knee-jerk "But aren't you SCARED something might happen to you?"

I was scared on this trip.  Thursday, I couldn't find a winery and realised I'd driven up a posted private drive about 500 feet; my Texas-developed fear of trespassing kicked in and I backed out before anyone could decide to set dogs on me or something.  Friday I was scared on the trail a few times.  In one case I was even afraid specifically because I was alone.  I was looking for a trail split.  The map said that the right-hand path was the easier path, and the left-hand path involved a fair amount of fairly intense rock scrambling.  It was the end of a long day, and I didn't think I could manage advanced rock scrambling, so I tried to find the right-hand path.

I ended up following a switchback trail up the side of a sharp hill, and found myself about five steps into a rockfall across the trail before the curve opened up and I realised that this wasn't just a matter of a few tumbled rocks in my path.  I was standing on loose and shifting scree above a forty-foot drop, completely alone, on a little-used trail at the end of the day.  The sheer folly of my position struck me hard.  If I lost my decidedly unsure footing, I would be definitely in for a fall, and perhaps for a night in the elements with no shelter, a hooded sweatshirt for warmth, and only three quarters of a liter of water (I had already finished my trail snacks for the day).  I began to cautiously backtrack, feeling every shift and twitch of the rocks beneath me.  When I got my feet back on solid (slick and slanted, but solid) ground, I sat on a nearby rock and took a few deep breaths and said, "OK, that was less than brilliant, but it turned out OK."  I went back and found the left-hand path, which turned out to be the easier way.  The rock scrambling was less intense than advertised, and the Forestry Service had put down some sort of material over the slickest parts, for traction.  It was steep, but not harrowing, and I never faced a drop of more than a few feet.

If I'd had a hiking partner, one with a rope or even just a hand to anchor me to a steadier spot, I'd not have thought twice about finishing that section of trail, right-hand or left-hand path.  If I'd had more experience in rock work, or a line to anchor me while I crossed it, I'd have done it without question.  But a solo hiker at my level of experience simply could not pass -- and it had nothing to do with my possession of ovaries.

There are things in this life that are dangerous no matter who you are.  An unsteady trail in an empty forest, eating mushrooms of uncertain provenance, swimming in unknown waters.  But they're not more safe for one gender or another.  They become more safe with experience, with companionship, with guidance, regardless of your sex.  And those are situations where it's wise to be cautious, only sensible to approach with a little apprehension.

But there are many other situations that I've been told I should be afraid of because 'the world is just dangerous for women'.  Walking alone at night, sleeping with a (third-story) window open, staying in a hotel in a strange city alone -- all things most of the men I know would take for granted.  There's an unspoken context there, that if something happens I will have 'gotten myself' raped/mugged/murdered by not exercising the gender-appropriate level of caution.

It gets very hard to resist the voices of fear sometimes, to refuse to buy into those cautions, those suggestions that self-awareness and the paralysis of societally-imposed fear should be indistinguishable from one another.  It can be hard to find the line between the overt defiance of taking unnecessary chances, and the clear refusal to be governed by what other people think should limit your movements. And for some of us, that clear refusal becomes enmeshed with our politics and our identities.

I want to grow up to be Kathy and Sue, women clearly hiking together for companionship as opposed to 'safety in numbers', women who travel alone and don't agree with the rest of the world that they should let themselves be limited by that fear.  If I have a traveling companion, I want a traveling companion -- not a de facto bodyguard.

Hell, I want to grow up to be my grandmother, who at eighty-plus years of age joined a tour by herself and went to Spain and Morocco.  I said, "Grandma, wait, you were in Africa?"  And she said, "Yes.  I saw that Casablanca.  It's noisy there."  She wasn't completely alone; she booked a tour with a bus and a guide, but she pretty much just picked up, got on a plane, and saw Africa in her eighth decade on the planet.  She and my grandfather used to travel fairly often, and when he died I guess she just felt she should keep right on going, to Spain or Australia or Morocco.

I think my odds are good.  This month my mom, less than six months after a hip replacement, is spending a couple of weeks wandering around Nova Scotia with a friend.  It's entirely possible this runs in my family.