Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Blessed Yule

Winter Solstice (Yule) is one of my favorite holidays.  It wasn't always, tucked into the overwhelming press of events that is Family Christmas and Year's End and everything else.  I used to just let it slip by unobserved, perhaps giving a nod to the first day of winter as I rushed to finish shopping and crafting and all my other obligations.

Over the last ten years, though, I've not only embraced my own darkness, but begun to speak openly about my struggles with depression, loneliness, and insecurity.  In doing so, I've come to understand the meaning and the beauty of the Longest Night: the chance to rest in unabashed faith that the light will come again.

Non-pagans, especially my atheist friends, ask me how I observe the longest night.  When I tell them, "I stand in darkness and believe the sun will rise," they painstakingly explain to me that of COURSE the sun will rise, don't I understand science, that the earth is spinning and this is entirely what's wrong with religion and why people of faith are stupid, assigning metaphysical meaning to basic astronomical events.

This is, of course, ridiculous and completely misses the point.

Of course I know how science works; I'm not stupid.  I'm an educated woman of faith in the 21st Century, with a background in science and a curious mind.  It'd be ludicrous to suggest that I genuinely believed, on a practical level, that the sun was going to go away last night and never come back if it wasn't properly called, if no one held vigil to welcome its return.

And say what you will about the ignorance of history, the ancients approached the solstices with a scientific curiosity.  They observed the changes in the length of days, in a culture where the balance between light and dark and the shifting seasons of the year, laying the framework for sowing and harvest, meant the difference between survival and starvation in the long, dark winter.  They were watching to see that the days became shorter to a point, and then *something* happened, and the days began to lengthen.  Without astronomical tools and study, you're not going to develop a working model of how planets move around the Sun, but lifetimes of observed phenomena will make you feel pretty secure that at some point, the cycle will shift, and you start building massive structures to act as accurate calendars.

So why celebrate the Longest Night with vigils and celebrations, with statements of faith, with a joyful welcome of the sun's return, if we know it's just how the world works?  Human psychology.

Through the month of December, especially in Northern climes, it can begin to feel like the darkness will just keep swallowing the year, that one day the sun *will* set and never rise again.  Anxiety sets in, depression and hopelessness.  The food of winter is hearty but bland and unvarying.  You begin to wonder, "Will I be eating turnips in the darkness forever?  Is this all there is and ever will be?"

And then the leaders of faith, the people who guide your tribe with wisdom, say to you:  Trust us, the light will return.  The wheel of the year will continue spinning, time keeps moving forward.  Someday, yes, there will be an ending of everything, but that day is not today.  Today is the day our calculations tell us that we can stand in the rising sun, welcome it back, and rest in the faith that from this moment, the darkness loses hold and begins receding.  The bitter cold of winter will remain, but this moment, here, this is the turning point of light.  We no longer travel into winter, because now we are moving towards the spring.

The world will keep on spinning.  The light will come again.  Though there will someday be an end, that end is not today.

Into every life the dark seasons come.  At some point, almost every living human has had a night they weren't sure would end in sunrise.  Almost everyone has, at one time or another, wondered if they were staring into the beginning of a permanent, inescapable darkness: it will never get better, there will never be beauty and bounty again, I will never again stand in the sunlight and feel warmth on my face.  I will forever be here, eating turnips in the darkness.

The people who survive the dark seasons usually do so by putting faith in the fact that the world keeps spinning, time keeps inexorably moving forward, and that the cycles of light and dark will turn, as they always have, to return to sunshine and the summer days.  This must get better, we tell ourselves.  The world will return to balance, the cycle of the year will proceed, and if we can just hold faith through the Longest Night, the sun will return, and hope with it.

Not everyone makes it.  Every Yule, in the safety of the risen sun, I take a moment to think of those who held on as long as they could in darkness, but whose grasp failed before the light came.  I have, at various points in my life, been angry at them, been broken-hearted at losing them, felt guilty for failing them, and almost been one of them.  But now, when I think of them, I feed my own fire, building it up in hopes that if there's someone whose grip is weakening, they might be reminded of the sun by the light of my burning.

I love you all, and Blessed Yule.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Getting Blood Without Trading A Pound of Flesh for It

As many of my friends know, I have chronic anemia.  Its cause isn't really known, except that I don't appear to be bleeding internally or destroying my own blood cells, so it's more of a "hey, keep an eye on that" thing instead of a "constant battle with death" thing.

The last two weeks, I've had what could be termed a health crisis, essentially caused by my body's tremendous adaptivity.  Oh, the body says, you figured out you should go to the doctor when you feel tired?  Well, let's make you the same level of tired at life-threatening low iron, as with your sort of average regular low iron, and let's improve our efficiency at the same time we develop asthma that explains all this extreme shortness of breath.  So instead of thinking, four months ago, "Holy cow, this is heavy-duty tired!" I've been thinking, "Yeah, feels like I oughta go see my hematologist before the end of the year."

A couple weeks ago, I made an appointment with a new doctor for the newly-developed asthma and recurring foot pain.  He ordered a routine iron test, which happens most times I visit a doctor and usually triggers a call a day later that says, "Yep, time to check in with the hematologist.  I called her office, and scheduling should call you today or tomorrow," followed by a month of infusions.  This time, it triggered a call that said, "You need to go to the hospital NOW.  You have critically low iron."  They didn't tell me on the phone, but there's a high risk of heart attack and stroke when your iron gets sufficiently low, because, well, there's no oxygen getting to important things like your heart and your brain.

I let the receptionist know I was leaving, and headed to the ER.  I spent the next seven hours or so getting a blood transfusion.  Starting with that first appointment with my doctor, I have had:

  • One doctor's office visit with lung capacity test
  • One iron test
  • One chest x-ray
  • One emergency room visit
  • Two blood transfusions totaling four units of blood
  • One bone scan on my foot to rule out stress fracture
  • One consultation at my hematologist's office, with blood tests
  • One iron infusion
  • One fitting for a supportive boot, including the purchase of said boot
This week I have another blood test, another hematologist consult, and another iron infusion, followed by two more over the next few weeks, and probably a prescription for a daily asthma inhaler.  Ordinarily, I'd be awash with money anxiety.  Many of these are expensive treatments (when my first iron infusion was not covered because of a 'preexisting condition' it cost me a thousand dollars out of pocket).  I know that a lot of people, including my own past self, would look at this list and despair.

I'm not, though.  At this point I have not taken a single cent out of my checking account, and it's not likely I will.  You see, not only do I have what I'm finding out is the Really Good Insurance, my company provides something called a Health Savings Account, with which most folks are familiar.  For those who aren't, I have a certain amount of money taken out of my pay and placed into a special account, and my company gives a lump-sum payment for taking the 'high-deductible' insurance plan -- a lump sum that conveniently covers almost that entire deductible.  I carry a credit card attached to that account, and what this means in practical terms is that I have a reserve of cash especially for medical expenses, that carries from year to year if I don't use it.

I don't say this to gloat over those who don't have this sort of safety net.  I say it because I want people to understand what the effect of that net has been.  Ten years ago, a call to go to the ER would have been greeted with, "I can't afford the ER.  How necessary is this?"  I'd be doing my best to struggle along with Urgent Care centers, wouldn't be able to afford a hematologist, and wouldn't *remotely* be able to afford the blood transfusions and iron infusions.  I don't make enough money that a $6,000-8,000 outlay over the course of two months every year is even a thing I can contemplate.  Every care decision, along the way, would have had to balance "How do I afford it?" and "Can I do without it?" against "I need to buy food and keep power on."  The safety net has left me free to think only of my health and the best course of treatment with regard to my healthcare decisions.

It's also drastically decreased my anxiety levels.  And, well, when you have a condition that increases your risk of a heart attack, and another one that affects your ability to breathe, anxiety can be a serious detriment to your health.  My only anxiety has been around trying to get the infusions scheduled so I can still attend an out-of-state wedding I *really* want to go to.  That peace of mind?  Directly contributing to the expectation that I'll get better.

I joke about feeling 'like an adult' because I have finally established that sort of safety net, combined with a savings account and a steady budget, so that a drop in hemoglobin doesn't completely derail me, but this is not "adulthood."  This is "what living in a developed nation should feel like for everyone."

This sort of security, this ability to make my decisions between me and my doctor, not me and my creditors, for my health is a human right and I believe that everyone deserves that right.  It should be available to the stay-at-home parent, to the entrepreneur starting a business on a shoestring budget, to the self-employed artist, to the fifth-generation farmers working their family's land.  You shouldn't have to take or keep a bad job based on the level of health security you need.

What we have now is an imperfect system.  Some aspects of the ACA, like the erasure of the 'preexisting condition' and the availability of healthcare exchanges, are great.  Others, including the penalties for people who don't buy insurance, are not the best solution for the problem because they still drag insurance companies into the mix and put some families into a pinch.

However, I look at it as a waystation stop on the road to real, fully socialized medicine.  I know that socialized medicine has its problems, but that none of those problems is "Do I go to the Emergency Room because I am having chest pains, or do I pay the electric bill next month?"  None of them is "Can I afford my meds *and* my food?"  None of them is having to do what I have done in the past: putting off essential care, even the basic doctor visits, because doctors get really angry when they tell you that you need a treatment, and you agree, but tell them, "I probably won't get it because I simply can't afford to."  And I've had more than one hear, "I respect your opinion, but I cannot afford to eat if I follow the course of treatment you deem essential," and refuse to treat me at all because I "just don't care about my health."

A lot of people I know argue that the problem is the 'high cost of medical care'.  I won't argue that's a serious problem.  But even if costs were half what they are, or a quarter, I could not easily have afforded the last week and the coming ones, and I'm relatively comfortable.  I get my infusions at a chemotherapy center.  I sit there and look at these people, many of whom can't work, who are spending tens of thousands of dollars a year in a direct and active battle with death.  Even at a tenth of the cost, most of them would have to give up treatment; 'reducing the cost of care' without keeping a safety net in place is not a viable, reasonable option.

Perhaps it's the self-interest of a chronic health condition that makes me an advocate for a centralized, single-payer healthcare system.  Perhaps it's the laziness of not wanting to have to individually bargain down the costs for every procedure I need or spend hours doing cost-benefit analyses of insurance programs, or a pessimism towards us ever having a fair system as long as it's partially run by profit-based insurance companies.  I don't know.

But what I do know is that I have something I want everyone in this country to have: peace of mind regarding my health options, and a life without the fear that a serious illness or injury will destroy everything I have built in my life and leave me stranded, dependent upon others, and hopeless.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Happy Labor Day!

Last Thursday, I ate something that profoundly disagreed with me.  Unable to stand for very long without being overcome by nausea, I called in sick to work and spent Friday in bed.

I will be paid even though I did not go to work or perform any of my job duties.  Having paid sick time allows me to stay home when I am contagious, preventing my co-workers from getting sick as well.  It also means that a minor cold has a smaller chance of turning into a serious complication.  My overall physical health is improved by having the ability to take a day off without worrying about making ends meet or losing my job.

Saturday and Sunday, I enjoyed my regular weekend.  Having a regularly-scheduled weekend and a defined time for my work week means that when my work week is done, my time is my own.  I can spend time with friends and family, I can pursue other projects, I can relax and recuperate for the week ahead, I can perform basic household tasks or maintenance when I am not tired from a long workday.  The time I have to myself on weekends is important for my mental health.

My sweetie and I spent some time working around the house, using power tools and climbing stepladders secure in the knowledge that if any mishap should lead to injury, our employer-provided health insurance would allow us to seek medical treatment without bankrupting ourselves.  I have the medical support to help me make good lifestyle choices, that allow me to understand my health needs and develop healthy habits.

Speaking of that house, our ability to purchase it depended upon the expectation that our employers would pay us promptly for that work, and that if we should be dismissed from those jobs without cause, we could not be blacklisted from finding further employment, and we might be able to collect on the unemployment insurance available for those dismissed without cause.

While we worked on our house, my partner and I reminisced about some of the mementoes we brought back from a recent vacation, and discussed plans for a future trip.  Each of us has an allotted amount of paid vacation to use each year, which gives us time to travel and broaden our perspectives.  We can go to see family or share an adventure together, then return to work with renewed focus and energy.

And today is Labor Day, a paid holiday.  My company provides me with several paid holidays each year, in addition to my vacation and sick time, closing the office so that all employees can enjoy their time off.

Tomorrow, I will return to my job, where I am mandated by law to have safe working conditions.  I cannot be fired for resisting sexual harassment, or for refusing to break the law in the course of my work.  I have legal recourse if I should be fired for my religion, my gender, or my political stances.

My life is profoundly improved by the labor movement.  For the last hundred years in this country, they've worked aggressively to defend worker rights, to insist that the possession of capital should not be the sole determination of power in the workplace.  Because of their efforts, I am able to balance work, leisure, my own health, and pursuing personal goals.

As workers organize, we gain collective power to force change.  Individually, I have only a minimal ability to convince my employers to change any policy or action, or to improve my workplace conditions.  But a combined meeting of everyone at my level to communicate a clear consensus of dissatisfaction has brought about the results we wanted.  Our employer recognised that there was a problem, and weighed the time and energy involved in replacing us against the cost of a change.  A national history of strikes and work stoppages has created a system in which employers have to take seriously the threat of "we will bring the work to a halt and you cannot do it without us."

I'm grateful to the labor movement for all its work.  But that work is not done.

In too many states, an employee can be fired for gender identity or sexual preference.

Too many employers avoid paying benefits by scheduling part-time employees instead of hiring full-time ones, meaning employees must balance multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet.

Too many companies have found they can save money by firing all employees and hiring them back as 'contractors' with little to no paid leave and no benefits.

Too many jobs are paid far less than they are worth, in companies where upper-level management receives the lion's share of compensation.

Too often, employers meet the bare minimum of workplace safety regulations, relying on outdated equipment or substandard training programs to comply with the lowest possible requirements.

Racism and sexism still play a large part in hiring and promotion decisions, and the resources for challenging those abuses are limited.

Jobs that insist on requiring a college degree don't pay enough to justify the expense of having one; answering phones at a customer service support line shouldn't require a four-year degree and certainly won't cover payment on a college tuition loan, but generally cannot be obtained without one.

We have come so far since the days of child labor and the company store.  But we still have a way to go, to fight injustice and exploitation in the workplace, to organise and demand fair treatment.  Not only are there still laws to change, but there is a relationship to maintain between labor and management, so that *both* can benefit from a business' success.  It will take time and effort, but it's a goal worth pursuing.

So if you're lucky enough to have this Labor Day off, thank the labor movement, and enjoy it.  Then, tomorrow, let's get back to our jobs -- and back to the work of building a safe, fair workplace for all.

Monday, August 24, 2015

You Are Making People Become That Customer

Recently I was given a referral code for a grocery delivery service.  It's a simple concept: you pick from a list of things available at local stores, and someone goes, gets them, and delivers them to your house or business for a fairly reasonable fee.  Ordinarily, I have plenty of time to go to the grocery store and get my food, but every so often the depression strikes and "there's no food I want in the house and I don't have the energy to go get any," becomes a convenient reason to punish myself with hunger, or we're at T minus 25 for guest arrival and realise there's neither bacon nor cream for the next morning's breakfast.  So, I tried out the service with an 'office restock' of the snacks and stuff I like to have on hand in the office for lunch general blood-sugar maintenance, plus some fresh fruit and cake for lunch.

It was super-easy and very convenient.  They had most of the things I wanted, and I can really see how on a busy week, or if you were home sick and didn't want to interact with people (I didn't have to sign for anything, so one presumes a "Please leave the bags on the porch and ring the bell; I am contagious" request would work), this would be a total godsend.  It's not something I would replace my regular shopping trips with, because I really like going to the grocery store and especially choosing my own produce, but great in a pinch.

What I didn't expect was for it to feel uncomfortably elitist.  I'm a solidly middle-class person, and even with the delivery fee this is a pretty minimal increase in the grocery budget (I did the math and it worked out to about a 6% increase in the overall cost, not including tip).  I'd put it roughly equivalent to the fiscal 'luxury' of having a pizza delivered instead of heating up a high-end frozen one.  The pizza delivery guy doesn't make me feel elitist, nor does the cookie delivery service, but grocery delivery...really did.  There was this moment of existential angst of "Do I really think I'm too busy and important to buy my own cheese and soup?"

I don't, by the way.  I'm much less busy than I was a year ago, and I'm not too important to shop, but I also acknowledge that this could be another tool in my self-care toolbox.  Some days there are not the spoons for fighting Traitor Brain to get out of bed, fighting it to get some pants on, navigating the complicated social world and overwhelming choices of grocery shopping, *and* cooking the food I bought.  If all I have to manage is "order the groceries and grab them off the porch," the likelihood of me cooking and eating the food goes way up -- especially if that grocery order can include ready-to-eat foods.

So why am I worried about being 'That Customer'?  Because the company sent me a request to rate their service.  I had one minor complaint, that the tres leches cake had tipped over on its side and leaked a little milk out into the bottom of the bag, and I had to rinse off my container of half & half.

I gave the service four stars.  In my world, four stars says, "I am quite satisfied with the service I have received, and absolutely intend to return.  You are to be commended on providing something of above-average value."

Apparently to the service in question it means, "You have failed me and I am dissatisfied."  Upon providing my (I thought very complimentary) four-star rating, I was asked to provide an explanation for why I had not given a five-star rating.  Thinking that I could help them improve, I noted "Everything was fine except please ask your delivery person to remind the baggers to keep the cake upright.  It leaks a little if it's put in sideways."

Within minutes, I had received a profound apology signed by a real person, explaining that they'd be 'following up' with my delivery driver (referenced by name), ensuring me that they'd be certain to avoid errors in the future, asking if I 'had been able to enjoy' the rest of my order, and then offering a *second* apology accompanied by a ten-dollar credit.


I am not entitled to perfection.  I am not entitled to have my every whim addressed, to be entirely and thoroughly satisfied in every retail interaction.  Sometimes things don't happen.  Sometimes a waitress forgets whether I wanted corn or flour tortillas, or a clerk has to tell me an item is out of stock.  Sometimes a customer service representative will have to tell me no.  I must, on occasion, be advised that the world does not revolve around my consumer happiness, and that walking through a world of 'pretty good' interactions is, on balance, as good as or better than I really have any reason to expect.

Combined with that earlier twinge of elitism, the sudden and effusive catering left me oddly unsettled.  As consumers, America has become a nation of people who seem to expect that the world will bend in every direction simply to ensure that the baseline of our experience is smooth and unruffled.  We wave the standard of 'the customer is always right' as some sort of holy birthright, some sacred Constitutional principle upon which the security of the nation depends.

As a whole, the retail and service industry should tell us to fuck right the hell off with that nonsense.  That the profit on a ten-dollar lunch special isn't worth the dignity of those who cook and serve it to us, and that those who exchange goods or services for our hard-earned money are just as deserving of respect as those who pay us that hard-earned money, because we're all human beings who deserve to be treated as such.

They don't, though.  Instead, they grasp desperately at the razor-thin margin and bend before the threat of a lost customer, or even simply an angry one, sacrificing employees and often their own self-respect.  Even, sometimes, sacrificing the customers driven away by the conspicuous, screaming displays of arrogant petulance our fellow shoppers present.

I worked my years in retail, and have been hurled full-force beneath that bus more than once.  I have also seen my share of valid complaints.  However, if you respond to every complaint, valid or not, by admitting fault, blaming staff, and offering discounts, coupons, or credit to every single person who complains then what you end up with is a culture where real complaints get lost in the haze of demands for validation.

What do I want?  I want the people who have to tell me no to do so without the fear that they'll lose a job for it.  I want the friends I have who work in a service industry to feel safe in the knowledge that they will be protected from abuse.  I want any complaints I might make to be evaluated fairly and reasonably, so that real problems can be corrected and imagined problems can be ignored.

Most of all, I don't want to be coddled with indulgent platitudes and have credit thrown at me to make me go away whether I am right or wrong, or to be treated as if I am so fragile, as a customer, that anything less than perfection will shatter me.

Monday, August 3, 2015

It's The Little Moments That Last A Lifetime

Every so often, something from childhood percolates to the top of your mind and you get a valuable insight to why you are the person you have become.  One of those has been rumbling around my mind this week.

When I was in seventh grade, my best friend was a girl named Dawn.  We had sleepovers and went roller skating and did all the things you do when you are a seventh-grade girl.

One Friday night, we were over at her house after an evening of roller skating.  Because her dad was still out of town on a duty assignment, it was just us and her mother.  She and I unrolled our sleeping bags in the living room and settled down a little after midnight to exchange gossip.

It was a little while later that we noticed someone moving quietly across the front of the lawn, headed for the front door.  Nervously, we got up, holding on to one another for emotional support, and walked over to the front door.

There, clearly outlined against the frosted glass, was the shape of a man.

She screamed.  I screamed.  Her mother came out of the bedroom screaming.  The dog howled and barked.  And the door...opened.  Her father walked in through it, looking both annoyed and confused.  He'd come back early from his assignment, unaware that we were sleeping in the living room, and was trying to come in quietly so as not to wake the household.

He asked us why we were screaming, and we said, "We didn't know it was you.  We thought you were an axe murderer."  What followed then was one of the more interesting conversations of my young adulthood, in which he explained that of all the choices available to us, screaming was exactly the wrong one.  Almost anything else we could have done would have been better.  Calling the police.  Waking Dawn's mother.  Hiding someplace safe.  Getting out the back door.  Fighting back.  He took us around the house and showed us all the different options we had for weapons, and all the best places to hide and hit someone over the head with a saucepan.

His lesson, though a little intense for 2am, was this:  when you're faced with trouble, panic is always an option, but it's rarely a good one, and there are any number of others ranging from 'seek help' to 'get away' to 'fight back'.  If you can keep your head, you can usually do something productive.

If I recall correctly, that was my last panicked freakout on record.  I have been terrified, I have been scared, I have been overwhelmed by a situation far outside my expectations, but outside of a few startled 'someone jumps out and yells boo at me' situations, I don't remember having a single "screaming paralysis of fear" moment since.  And even in those startled moments, I've always been inclined to punch first and freak out after.

Time passed and as Army Brats do, Dawn and I moved on and lost contact.  Eventually, that night fell out of my medium-term memory, but the lesson remained: you have so much else you can do that is not panic, that is not giving in to fear.  There are always options for response and reaction.

I doubt Dawn's dad has ever, again, thought of that night or the conversation.  Probably to him it was just another in the long line of lessons raising a daughter entailed, just one at which a friend happened to be present.  But when I think of all the times that keeping a clear head and putting the fear reaction in a box to deal with later has helped me, a small part of me wishes I could find some way to tell him just how far his words have taken me.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Un-Scheduled to Within an Inch of My Life

A lot of articles and conversations have been wafting through my life lately like this one, Exhaustion is Not a Status Symbol, and each time I tell myself I'm going to talk about my experience with this destructive mentality, and then I don't.  So now I am.

One year ago, if you asked me how I had been, the answer was a sort of helpless, "Oh, you know, SO BUSY.  I am made of busy.  I am doing All The Things."  It took a lot of things, multiple articles highlighting that the glorification of busy is part of a system that was eating so many people alive, before I really started to ask myself important questions.

Important questions like, "What, exactly, are my own goals?" or "What is it that I would do if I ever stopped taking on others' priorities as my own?" or "So, what am I afraid I'll have to deal with if I ever sit still?"

My life is very full.  I work, I volunteer, I have a few creative gigs and hobbies, I am in a relationship, I'm part of a closely-knit community, I serve as a priestess, and I'm working on my own personal development, plus managing episodic depression and occasional bouts of anemia.  I also moved last year and my company underwent a transition of ownership.

I used to take a great deal of pride in that list, because the eyes of anyone who heard it got very round, and they said, "Wow, you ARE busy."  There was a sort of self-satisfaction in knowing that I lived under a schedule that others considered crushing and impressive.  I joked about being 'scheduled to within an inch of my life,' but the truth is that I wasn't really joking.  I was at the very edge of what I could reasonably live.

The primary problem, of course, lies in that episodic depression and occasional anemia.  Because there were occasionally days where I looked at the catalogue of obligations I'd built myself, and I...couldn't (I should probably also mention the migraines here, most common in January and February when dry air and pressure changes are particularly vicious).  I had to stop, to hide, to take a full day to recover from the basics of my life.  Of course, everyone tells you, when you need to take three to five 'mental health' days a year, that you're perfectly entitled to them, that you have 'every right' to the time.

But what if I didn't need it?  What if I started structuring a life I never needed to take time from, because it was ordered in a way that included time off, relaxation, and recovery time as normal facets of human existence?

I had this moment where a friend asked if I wanted to have coffee or dinner or something, and my calendar was literally full, something scheduled every single day, for weeks.  That was a trigger; the night I found myself weeping into the laundry at 2am because I couldn't sleep until I had washed the sheets and made the bed but I hadn't gotten home until almost midnight was another.  I started working towards balance, towards the notion that relaxation didn't have to represent 'hiding from' my life, that it could be an integral part.  I started to consider that maybe it might be reasonable to be able to do interesting things at the last minute.  I started offloading small tasks and obligations to people I could trust with them.

If you had told me that stepping back from a life of obligation would increase the time I had to spend managing it, I'd never have believed it.  But it's true.  Anything I dropped without a clear transition plan, without figuring out who would take it on, came back upon me with a vengeance, unpredictably and in crisis.  So I exhausted myself, carving out bits and pieces of time in hopes that it would create space for that transition.

Gradually, slowly, it worked.  I found that in spaces where I have taken leadership roles, I could comfortably delegate to trusted team members.  I found that in spaces where leadership was lacking, I could advise and suggest rather than doing the work and owning the process.  Some of it has to do with the change in work, from 'ten vacation days and five sick days a year' to 'twenty undifferentiated PTO days, plus three floating holidays to use as desired.'

I've had to let a lot go.  I've had to trust.  I've had to set boundaries.  It's been hard, because my natural tendency, when someone says, "We need this done," is to say "Of course, I can help with that.  I'll just take on that responsibility."  Rather than simply refuse all requests, which is its own trap, I've been forcing myself to stop and consider which things are good uses of my time, which things will feed me.  I am looking at trips as real plans, and not as someday hopes for 'years when the anemia and the festivals leave me enough time.'

About six months ago, I turned the corner that was "The process of transitioning things out of my life no longer occupies more space than the things I have transitioned out of my life," which is to say I started to develop occasional free time.  It's been amazing.

The hardest thing is that there are SO MANY OPTIONS for filling that time, for busying back up, for a show and a party and a movie and a dinner and a coffee every single week.  There are more hobbies I'd love to take up, and more events I'd love to see, but for now, at least, I'm stopping to take a breath and center myself at home, and establish what a healthy boundary set of my own time really looks like in the long term, rather than create another cycle of busy-and-purge down the road.

I do not delude myself that this is anything other than a landing on my life's staircase.  At each turning, I cull obligation and replace it with passion, in hopes that someday my life will be full only of things that feed and nourish me, of things that all actively contribute to me being my best self.

I love you all.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Little Things Matter to Big People

Dear Fitness Center:

When we joined your gym a few months ago, my partner mentioned that he'd been a member previously.  He was asked, "Why did you quit last time?"  I understand the purpose of this question, to try and help someone tailor their experience differently in a way that retains customers.  The answer, as it is for many people who join gyms and quit them, was a complex muddle of "It cost more in time and money than I was willing/able to spend to get the benefits I wanted."

But if I ever have to answer that question, here's what I'll say:

It's your towels.

Not specifically the towels themselves, you see, but what they represent in the context of your gym and how you manage it.

The best time for me to work out is at lunch, which means I drive over, hit the elliptical for 20-25 minutes, shower, and drive back to work for the afternoon.  This is, for me, a workout routine I can establish as a habit, meaning that regular activity 3-5 times a week becomes a set part of my life.  All the studies I've read say that, whatever my size, that is an improvement and a positive thing over spending the same lunch hour working, or sitting at my desk and reading.

But here we find...the towels.  I am not particularly body-shy.  I have used communal showers for almost two decades now, so being unclothed around a bunch of other women in the locker room isn't really a thing with me.  But I'd like to wrap a towel around me as I walk from the shower to the locker, in part because it's a bit chilly in there, and in part because that seems to be the standard of behaviour everyone else is engaging in, and I'd like to respect others' comfort levels.

The towel won't wrap, though.  Each time I work out, each time I shower, I attempt to squish my body into one of your towels, unable to even convince it to tuck neatly around my chest, and it simply gapes below.  My hips and stomach are completely exposed, in all their rounded glory, as I scurry to my locker, trying to juggle my workout clothes and shoes and my glasses and my conditioner, and keep the towel from falling off.  I have yet to succeed; every day or two I hold my head up defiantly as that inadequate towel pools around my feet.  I can't go back to work unshowered, and packing a towel for my own use adds a load of laundry each week to an already-full domestic schedule, so I face the towel every day, and it demoralizes me, removing some of that endorphin high from my workout.

I look around at all the pictures you have, of people enjoying their workouts, happily swimming and biking and practicing yoga, and every last one of those people is thin.  Not just an average-weight person, but a deliberately thin one, one who fits in the towel with ease.  There are no pictures of happy fat people working out in your gym, not anywhere.  I have never, in fact, worked out in a gym where there were pictures of happy healthy fat people, despite the fact that I know a lot of happy healthy fat people who enjoy working out.

When I came in for my 'free consultation', I explained "I am trying to rebuild healthy habits, so what I plan to do is get in the habit of coming in, just to hit the elliptical, or the treadmill or the stairmaster, several times a week.  I have about 25 minutes.  Eventually I will want to put together a weights routine that I can switch out with that, even though I know it'll have to be limited."  The trainer explained patiently that 25 minutes of weight lifting just wasn't even worth doing, and if I wasn't willing to commit to more time than that, then probably I should just stick to the elliptical, because that would have to be enough and it was 'better than nothing'.  I was pushed and pushed and pushed to weigh myself and lay out a 'goal weight' and a 'target weight loss rate' no matter how many times I said it wasn't about getting skinny.

All of this, over and together, tells me that the story you're selling is this one:  thin people go to the gym.  Thin, happy people are people who work out.  People who work out are thin, happy people.  There is no space for the fat fit.  They do not exist, they do not belong here, this is a place where inadequate people come and they get thin, because thin is how you win when you commit to fitness as a lifestyle.

I will never be thin.  Even at my 'goal weight', five or ten pounds above where my face starts to look a little uncanny-angular, I am a 36DDD.  As for the bottom half of my body, this train is an express to Callipygia and it is equipped with a full caboose.  There is no changing that, and I do not want there to be.

My 'ideal body' is measured in my functionality.  At my peak of fitness, I can't tell you my waist size, but I can tell you that I can hike 8 desert miles with ease, and manage Hill Country hikes with hundreds of feet of change in elevation.  I can run five back-to-back 20-hour active days without exhaustion.  I can lift, carry, and push almost anything I'm likely to need to.  My long-term goal is a solo overnight 20 or 30 mile hike.  But when I explain to people at your gym these functional goals I have, I hear "Ok, so at what weight do you think you'd be able to do all that?"

So, I get that this is a gym and selling fitness is your job.  I get that your job is easiest when I'm satisfied with easy metrics like weight and body fat percentage, and when I'm willing to simply do what I'm told, make getting to the gym on your terms a priority in my life, and live out a 'success story' for your ads.  Joe Sixpack who lost 60 pounds and umpty inches makes a much better photo op than the woman who hauls her size fourteen fluffy ass up 15 miles of Big Bend trails.

And I get that you're telling the story larger culture taught you:  There is no room in fitness for fat people.  A fat person in the gym can't possibly be working on any goal beyond self-erasure.  I cannot possibly have a workout goal that includes expanding anything about myself, not even my capacity for physical endurance, because expanse should be my enemy.

I also get that you can't change that larger culture.  That asking a business to change its entire philosophy when most of us can't even find pants in our size or doctors who'll consider non-weight-related causes is not so realistic.  You can't change how the world views me, you can't change the American perception of fitness to include the fact that it is a thing personally defined, by each and every one of us, that it is a constantly-changing idea based on the capacity of the body you inhabit, not a cookie-cutter image of fat-free triathletes smiling past their water bottles.

You can't singlehandedly end shaming and misinformation about weight, you can't singlehandedly make people understand that the entire idea of 'extreme diet and workout program to get to the right size' is a path to failure every single time because it can never be sustainable, you cannot completely revolutionize the world so that fat people feel welcome, so that we feel we have a right to exist in this world.

But you know what you can do?

Get bigger towels.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Keeping Austin Weird

It will come as a surprise to no one who knows me that I have loved Austin, Texas since I was about nine years old.  When I was in middle school and we would come to Austin for back-to-school or holiday shopping, it always seemed like this magical place.  My sister graduated high school and went to UT, and her stories of the crazy happenings in her dorm, and the places she took us to visit when we came, all reinforced my belief that Austin is magic, that somehow everything is possible.

Eventually, my life brought me here, and the last ten years have been incredible.  It really is all I had hoped.

But...a lot of people seem tremendously invested in an Austin That Was.  The Austin of Slacker, the Austin of the 70s, the Austin of ten/fifteen/thirty years ago, the days 'when it was still cool'.

They say 'Keep Austin Weird' and damn, people do try.  They wear funny hats and they take pictures of the funny things they see and so many of them strive for something special, something different, something 'Austin Weird.'  Everyone seems to have a perception of what 'Austin Weird' is, and for many people I know, it's past tense.  They say to me, "Oh, ten years?  Then you missed all the good stuff."

This city was never the weird, bright, bold, beautiful place it is simply because its residents saw everyone else wearing stripes and wore plaid on purpose to be different.  What's made this place great and beautiful isn't the fact that people are deliberately seeking out the untrodden path.  It's that we have not crushed those who choose it, and the key to 'preserving Austin' lies in that.

So when I hear how 'Keep Austin Weird' is a pale shadow of itself, how it's all ruined now, how this place and that place have closed and we've lost so much of what made Austin Austin, I just want to stop and shout this at the top of my lungs:

Stop.  Stop that.  Stop it right now.  What makes this city an incredible place, what makes it weird and unique and lovely, isn't that we have collected and preserved a quirky heritage, in cultural amber, a time capsule of that most perfect moment you remember, that glorious summer sun just before you hit the water in Barton Springs, that exquisite taco you once got on South Congress, that night that started with a crazy live show and ended up with you and your favorite band climbing to the top of Mt. Bonnell to watch the sun come up.  Stop loving a collection of moments you believe will never come again.

What's hurting this city the most is the perception that somehow its best and most beautiful days have passed, that it's better to sit and remember those moments than it is to go out and find the people who are making them now.  Things can never be what they were, and if you waste your energy lamenting what's gone you will miss the beauty right in front of you.  Every night of the week, people are singing and dancing and performing and cooking, and they are making amazing things they want to share with you.

Find them.  Accept the creativity and the gift of their passion with you, and support them in that pursuit however you can.  When your friend says, "I'm thinking of this kind of crazy thing I want to do," say, "How can I help you do that?" instead of "Are you really sure that's a good idea?"

It starts with supporting local businesses, but it doesn't stop there.  We must understand the importance of supporting local PASSION, and do it.  This city is still a place where people who want to make things, all kinds of things, from software code to beer to music to pottery, can find a community that will honor what it means for them to put that piece of themselves out into the world.  Bluntly put, give them money, if you can afford to do it, because if passion will pay, then it spreads out beyond itself to inspire others and it supports a culture where people are encouraged to believe in their dreams.

Not everyone has the means or the courage to follow a dream.  Some folks have responsibilities or obligations, or they're just not ready to leap.  Some folks' passions lie closer to home.  But when we encounter someone who does, who has said, "against all the odds, I am gonna try to find a way to share this thing that I love," then the best thing we can do, to make the world a better place and really keep it weird, is to stop worrying about if it's the next big thing or if it's better or worse than the world that lives in memory and just revel in it.

It can be hard to face someone else's passion.  It's easier to reach for what's familiar, and that's where the influx of new people in the last twenty years (including me) has created some conflict, because how do we tell whether a newcomer is bringing a passion to life or reestablishing the comfort zone left behind in another city?

There really isn't much way to do that objectively, so make a practice of seeking out, in every aspect of your experience, the people who are doing the things that bring them joy, that make them sing, that really feed their souls.

So I say to you, who mourn that Lost Better Austin (and really anyone else), that I have a challenge for you.  This year, in 2015, make it your active mission to seek out and support those who are doing the things that make them come alive.  And before the end of the year, if you're not already doing the thing that feeds your deepest heart, I challenge you to take one single step, no matter how small, along the path that leads to it.

I love you all.