Wednesday, December 18, 2013

merry effing christmas

I've been doing a lot of things wrong this holiday season.

My brilliant husband, in an effort to maintain a positive image of me in the face of what can only be described as a three-week-long temper tantrum, has posited the idea that my problems are mostly hormonal -- the fallout of the reality that my son is now a little person and has entirely lost interested in boobs for at least a decade or so. Which is jarring, because the hormones that turn on the milk also turn off my personal crazy, apparently. And I've become, not just sort of crazy, but actively resentful of every single person walking the planet.

Found a nursing job? I hate your face. Employing and paying me at my current, non-nursing, job? I hate. your face. Employed in any number of non-nursing pursuits, and a holder of the opinion that you have value as a person and your life is worth living? Your face! I can't even, because of the hate I have for it. 

I am angry in a way that I have no right, or reason, to be, except that life just didn't work out for me the way I thought it would at nine or nineteen or even twenty-nine, and that I have long maintained the belief that if a thing hasn't happened yet, it never will, and it's all my fault, and also, that Facebook has further blurred the line between "cultural products" and "actual human beings walking around the planet" to the point where an entire generation of people still believe that it's useful to talk about ourselves as a generation rather than to simply be adults, and that no one, anywhere on the planet, is over the age of thirty-five.

In other words: there's absolutely no legitimacy to the angry I feel right now. Life, actually, doesn't have to give you what you want, no matter how high your SAT scores were.

For most of my life, faith has been my corrective to this tendency to see my life in terms of obtaining things I want and believe I should have: jobs, children, more jobs. It's given me a context that allowed me to believe that even if I spend the next decade paying off a degree I cannot use (or, you know, take more than five weeks to find said job, and have to keep directing after school programs into 2014), my life can still have meaning. That even if my individual life is devoid of any meaning beyond "I AM A FAILURE," the universe is still a place I can life in. The fact that my faith has kind of bounced this yuletide season -- like, I woke up and was like, God? What? -- would be another not-a-reason to be angry, if I wasn't just grimly Over It All by this point. 

I understand that some people continue to live comfortably in the world without this particular corrective. I don't understand how that works, because underneath every single thing I have experienced or believe, there is the awareness of how insignificant I actually am. On my godfearing days, I see this smallness as part of the human condition, and my inability to accomplish a single thing that I have set out to do every oh my God -- well, that's really more a statement about how people are than the acutely humiliating personal failure I suspect it actually is.

On my less spiritual days, the things I should have done with my life, and didn't, create a sort of existential relativism in which I've failed at everything else, so going to my stupid job that I'm too old to still be at is essentially the same thing as wearing tiger pants and eating pop-tarts out of the box and reading online recaps of Mad Men because I still don't understand how to operate my husband's PS3.

Once upon a time, when I was an adult, I actively resisted a life that is all about me, not so much because I think such a life is inherently lame (though I may, at such time as I once again think and feel things about people other than myself), but because I do not like the person I am and do not believe that person is worth liking. The degree to which this dislike interferes with my ability to enjoy life depends on whether or not I believe I matter in the first place. For me, this is a key selling point of faith, and particularly of the brand of Christian faith with which I grew up.

Anyway, I've been in dire need of some sort of spirit this advent. Call religion a crutch; it's been a long time since I've operated under a belief that I can get through my life without some kind of adaptive device.

It's this sense of my own brokenness that finally lends some sort of meaning to my life, however ambivalent my commitment to that meaning is: maybe, if this program I'm running does a little bit of what it's meant to, it can leave some of these kids valuing themselves  more and coping better than I grew up to do. Because while I know this throwing up of hands of whatever character and maturity I once possessed will eventually pass, I had thought it already had, and on the Continuum of Failure currently dominating my schema, "recurrent inability to cope" ranks even more highly than "can't find a nursing job". 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The blog is back!

This latest lull here on my blog was intentional, part of my "no blog til NCLEX" resolution designed to ensure that I actually attained the nursing license without which my new degree is really just an elaborate, twenty-grand-costing piece of paper. 

Things keep happening through the months of October and November, amount them: a total crisis brought on by my return to the admittedly thankless world of directing free enrichment programs for urban youth who may or may not want to be enriched, and who mostly don't agree with the largely middle-class, non-urban, unconsciously political vision for how this enrichment should work. Basically: your average eleven year old of background probably would rather go home and play video games or hang out on the street than have "study snack" or mandatory homework time or "reading club" or even most other kinds of clubs.

In another context, the fact that our dance teacher and basketball coach can get two hundred sixth graders excited to go do something safe and healthy instead of the asinine, hormonally charged timesucks that I recall occupying my junior high school years would be cause for celebration. Because of the nature of this particular partnership and the expectations of the school in which we're operating, though, the real purpose of what we're doing is to faciliate a Harvard-Ed-Lab-piloted tutoring program which 1. serves only some of our kids, 2. serves them, not according to expressed need, or with consideration for which kids could handle an additional hour of intensive academic support from people whose training is mostly limited to a pep talk on the No Excuses pedagogical model currently embraced at Harvard, but according to their policy person's analysis of a reading assessment thrown together and administered without explanation or ceremony in the second week of school, and 3. forces kids and parents to choose between "unimportant" activities like dance, art, and creative writing on the one hand, and working on their homework in our program on the other.

Basically, the end result is a lot of people patronizing, criticizing, and registering complaints with me -- my favorite of which feature the fact that only 70% of the 6th graders in our school participate, the result, first, of the fact that although the school day "ends at 4:45", after our program ends, in point of fact, the school buses take students home at 2:20. Which, to me, suggests that the school day actually ends at 2:20, when the yellow bus that took the children to the school, arrives to take them home. It also stems from the fact that on the first day of school, faced with angry kids stating that their parents didn't want them to stay in the program, the principal shifted her message from "our school day ends at 4:45" to "if you want out of the after school program, your parents need to send a note".

As you may have surmised, my real problem is that, while my own sense of efficacy is tied to becoming a nurse, because I've invested so much in that project for the past few years, I actually care really deeply about my job. The general sense of iritation and indifference I feel on the daily relates more to my hate of being unsucessful -- and to me, left brained to a fault, aiming for every kid to attend and getting seven out of ten kids there is failure. I wanted X and ended up with, say, Y, or, I guess, with 0.7X. I don't prefer it.

And yet. As I tell my staff -- when I'm not saying things like, Thank you in advance for attending to this element of your job, and, Please see me regarding your attendance -- what we do, when it works (and sometimes it does!), changes lives. Overwhelmingly, the kids we are serving don't have the skills to manage what's being asked of them now, at eleven, or the motivation to develop them or believe us when we say, You are valuable, and You can do better, and You can be more. The odds that they'll just become the kind of people who can handle life, who have the power to make their lives what they want, are small. All of my own privilege as a middle class white girl with two English-speaking parents and standout test scores, and I've got to be honest, I still feel grateful I was able to do much with my life, because we live in a culture that would rather focus on the same ten famous people's lives and careers than empower individuals to construct meaning out of their own.

Critics of social programs and therapy and youth development models tend to overlook that, when we didn't have those things, people did without them -- but the "fine" they did without them tended to involve beating the shit out of their kids, drinking to excess, ignoring the needs of others, or telling their kids/students/spouses/employees they were stupid or worthless."Look at me! I didn't get any dance/creative writing/basketball/emotional support as kid!" "Yes, and you're kind of a dick."

I want my kids not to grow up to be dicks. I want them to grow up literate and thoughtful, to have their talents recognized, to see that there is an actual difference in the quality of life generated when one wins a basketball game or writes a short story or aces an exam, versus when one plays Grand Theft Auto or sleeps with their whiny, mean boyfriend because he "needs them/it." But mostly, the feedback I get is neither positive nor focused on that -- it's about these numbers, over which I feel relatively little control (I can't force kids or their parents into this program) or over the aspects of the program that the person complaining finds personally inconvenient (doesn't replace the city-mandated test prep the school's expected to provide; we don't have staff to take out the trash so the cafeteria and custodial staff don't have to do it; we're no more successful than a given kid's parents at determine what homework he actually has or how he can do it when his teacher told the class to leave their textbooks at home).

So here's where I am, and what I'm doing, and it's a distraction from the nursing job application process to which most of my classmates seem to be devoting their time, so they're getting jobs and I'm not. And it's a drag, on the one and, and then on the other, this thing that consumes a big chunk of my life fails to provide me much in the way of identity or pride in how I'm spending my time, because the feeling when no one seems to approve of or appreciate what your doing is generally a feeling of failure. And, true to form, I respond to feelings of inadequacy with the quiet, blind rage that makes the ideal fuel for addictions and eating disorders, et. cetera.

It's been a long autumn, and there's no real answer that wraps up the seemingly endless, messy doubts and feels I have about my life right now. Change is hard? Managing social service programs is thankless? I can't actually evaluate my success based on who bitches about what, because people like to complain?

Yes, I guess, and also: nurse or underappreciated /possibly mediocre non-profit manager, I just need to keep eating and caring for myself and not being abusive, because I cannot count on my feelings about myself to determine whether or not I eat food or need to go running at ten pm in December. Whatever self-doubts I'm experiencing don't get to determine whether I take care of my body or not, because a mind that sees "No food for you" as a reasonable response to "Parents don't want to sign their kids up for the after-school program" is not a mind that gets to make those decisions. If I'm able to fully, or mostly, internalize that before I move on, than at least one person at my school will have benefited from our mostly-unpopular efforts at Social-Emotional Learning.

Monday, September 23, 2013

other people's husbands, other people's kids

After completely rocking out to this weekend's amazing Ian Hunter concert at the amazing City Winery, I spent Saturday morning sulking, rudely sending work emails in the last moments of my parents' visit, yelling at my husband (battered by wine and reduced to a sad sprawl in his bed) and losing-then-finding my last student loan check.

But also! I did: use essentially my entire first full paycheck to make a massive credit card payment, so I can start paying down my student loans; spend the rest of Saturday feeding my child, napping, building the Best Stack Ever of library books for the week; and volunteering first at a nursing home for kids and then as a group home for young moms and their babies/toddlers. Mac made an older friend and ground cake into their couches; I tried to sympathize with a woman attempting to parent a three-year-old and a three-month-old simultaneously.

I also read about, then argued with my husband about, the latest post on the ever-intriguing blog Polyskeptic. Which, in turn, generated its own navel-gazing about my own marriage, one, and my general skepticism about polyamory, two.

I don't really know why this is something that interests me. It's not the kind of lifestyle choice that has any bearing on my own life; I have the remarkable luck of having married the best person on the planet. I imagine kids who use their Columbia acceptances letters for the purpose of attending law school at Columbia, for example, probably don't spend a lot of time wondering about the road less taken. Over here in Brooklyn, I never get a bagel at Bergen Bagels and then wonder if I needed to play the breakfast-carb field more. (Although if that field exists you must call me now oh my God). Or go to the library and then wish I'd been more openminded about how to spend my afternoons. I have simple tastes: just give me the Platonic ideal of breadstuffs, weekend diversions, spouses, and I don't want anything else. If we had world enough and time, I'd still be hard pressed to explore the world beyond BPL, bagels, and my boo.

But you know. I do find it helpful, sometimes, to think about why I want such different things from other people, and how those differences inform my understanding of my own choices.

Fundamentally, for me, the benefit of being married isn't that it makes my life better. That it does is undeniable: I'm less lonely, more human, more happy, more functional. But the mechanism by which most of that happens has to do with the fact, now that I am married, there exist these shimmering and rare little moments in which my own well-being is no longer my priority. 

In my best moments -- in the moments that demonstrate to me that marriage and life and my efforts, chaotic and ambivalent as they are, to live my life in accordance with my value system, occasionally bear fruit -- I find myself capable of wanting things one way, but actively working to make them another way, in an effort to make life easier or more enjoyable or more comfortable for my partner. To some people, I can only presume, this comes easily. Those people should write blogs! I would certainly read them!

For me, this is the difference between marriage and other kinds of relationships, the ones I'm able to control more easily by remaining peripheral: I don't get a break to go be selfish and then return to the relationship later, when I'm in a better space. I don't get to decide that I'm taking my damn toys home and leaving if I'd really rather have things my way than play well with others. I don't get a pass on checking out when my husband gets sick or drinks too much or loses someone and is nearly-destroyed by grief. Unlike when I was dating, there's this imperative to behave well even when it's not getting me what I want, even when the people around me aren't behaving or responding how I would want. Whereas, in every other relationship of my life, when I don't want to be a brat, but I also don't want to pull myself together, I can just bounce, like I do.

So much of that is 1) exhausting and 2) predicated on being reliable, which is not a sexy value or a marketable value and therefore is pretty entirely overlooked, not least by me, at least most of the time. It makes sense to me that if I'm to put someone else first, always, then I can't making that commitment, simultaneously, to more than one person.

Some people can give that kind of love to multiple people, I gather. I'm not one, and not really interested in being one. It seems to me that one of the talking points of polyamory advocates is that this way of relating to others forces everyone to be super honest and get over "baggage" like jealousy and neediness.

To me, when I hear this, it sound like this: just effing deal with, and learn to be a grown up about, the fact that ultimately, you may need someone and that person may not be there. Which is a truth, yes -- but a shitty, hard truth, one I'd like to encounter as infrequently as possible, and from which I'd like to shield those I love as often as I can.

This, I think, is a fundamental difference between myself and most of the (few!) people I know, or whose writings I follow, who prefer to commit to multiple people at once, and most often conditionally (I think that most polyamorous people are also advocates of leaving "non-functional" relationships, though I could be wrong about that. I'm not an advocate of this, in part because I play fast and loose with phrases like "non-functional" and would have left my own marriage about fifteen times by now if I let its future be determined by how I feel about Things at any given point in time.)

I don't want my spouse to need me, and to not be there, because I have my hands full with someone else who has a similar claim on me and who also needs me -- or (and I'm not saying this happens more in polyamorous relationships, only that, my view of human nature being what it is, I think the opportunity that polyamory provides for this is something of a moral hazard) because my other Most Important Person wants to provide me with stimulating conversation and delicious wine, and all you want is for me to sit with your stifling and ugly grief over tasteless sandwiches three weeks after everyone else has moved on. What happens when your two or three or four most important people have losses back to back? Who gets to find someone else to see them through that?

Most of all, my primary interest at this point in my life is getting over my pervasive selfishness. I am so self centered that the most innocuous and unrelated enterprises have a way of fading into the Amanda Show. The reason that new relationships feel fun and good, often, is that you're suddenly a star, every aspect of your precious self new and amazing and novel.

The parts of me that crave that are not the parts that I want to cultivate. I'm sorely in need of practice in loving people whose function in my life is more substantial, and less immediately gratifying, than fixing me in their fuzzy gaze, a la every poignant-wistful mid-nineties cultural reference ever, and reflecting a sexy/vulnerable/insubstantial image of myself back to me. Dating, for me, is the lowest common denominator of social interaction. I love being married not only because it happily precludes dating -- the biggest, shiniest get-out-of-jail-free card ever -- but also because the experience of withholding from myself the cheap gratification of That Guy Thinking I'm Pretty is the glorious antidote to the soul - crushery of dating.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

remember Paris, Part 1

Like so many of the "yeah, I did that" episodes in my life -- living in New York, having my son, not being bulimic, nursing school -- my trip to Paris was catalyzed by my husband. Without Z, I just never would have gone. There are about a dozen other places I've wanted to go, mostly to do some sort of volunteer program or relief work or whatever, and none of which I've actually made it to because student loans and living beyond my means and the vicious cycle I navigate with such finesse: Everything is too much and nothing is enough and eff it, I deserve and need five dollars worth of coffee, preventable malaria deaths be damned. If I can't be actively engaged in medical missions while raising eight adopted children and writing and publishing thought-provoking critical theory that is also accessible to lay-readers, I might as well be at home watching Mad Men over a three-roll combo.

So, a couple of things about that:

1. Yes, consumerism is poison. "We all" -- those of us who kvetch about our First World Problems while scrolling through memes about First World Problems -- know this, and we know we should feel guilty about it. But I spend most of my time confused about the nature of this guilt -- as I did with my eating disorder, honestly --  and thinking that the problem is this: by buying all these stupid things I am  privileging my own well being over that of other people. Shame on me! (Because shame: always a great inciter of life-affirming choices and changes.)

Actually, in my experience, the more immediate (not more significant) problem is that consumerism is poison to me.

For example: I'm a big eater of "special foods" -- those well versed in eating-disorder language might call them "safe foods". Yogurt is okay, but not if it's sweetened with sugar; chinese food is okay if it is steamed, sauce on the side and ultimately unused. Bagels are okay if a certain amount of time has elapsed since one last ate carbs; sliced bread is a problem, but bread crusts can be torn off and eaten if one is prone to nighttime snacking. And so forth, ad nauseam, so that often I just order sushi because I enjoy a. identifying each individual ingrediant in what I am eating, 2. allowing another person to make the exhausting and existentially-charged decision of how much food I "deserve" to eat.

This obnoxious and unproductive little mindfuck is sustained in no small part by my insistance that, when the going gets tough, the tough throw up their hands, run for an hour, and order sushi ten minutes before the restaurant closes, because weighing more than a hundred fifteen pounds and cooking and eating dinner with one's family and before eight o'clock all feel intolerable.

Insofar as there is a root cause of my bulimia -- there's not, but it's a useful little story, so indulge me -- it lies somewhere in this general area: I do not believe the everyday things that people enjoy and look forward to are acceptable things to value, so I do not let myself have them or notice them or enjoy them. As a rule, I mean. I don't plan and look forward to outings or shows or trips or parties. I don't buy new shoes when I'm sad -- even when that sadness stems directly from my inability to walk in my current work shoes, purchased in 2010. I get my eyebrows done when I feel too bad about them to leave my house; when I go, I look at women who are there for manicures like I'm some kind of anthropologist encountering the rituals of an unfamiliar tribe.

And when you feel this way -- that you deserve nothing, that Nothing is in fact a tangible moral imperative for you, a prop in some sort of weird and ritualistic exercise in not having -- and when, paradoxically, your response to Facebook pictures of other people's offices or children or friends is to wonder why you're not good enough for a sign on your door or another child or  for people to want to go to, and document, brunch with, and when a sandwich is an okay thing to eat at lunch, but not at dinner, and only if dinner then has no carbs in it, and only if it costs less than five dollars -- then sushi after a long, hard day, seems like the answer. And it can be easy to overlook that part of being a grown up is that most days, in fact, are kind of long and hard.

So I stopped eating sushi last week. I was inspired by my trip to Paris. Initially, I did this because I wanted to save the money to go back to Paris, but also because, in Paris, I thought much less about eating. I fought much more about it, because I was still no more inclined to eat Foods Combined with Other Foods and because their bread is delicious and terrifying and everywhere, but there was so much else going on that food just became a necessity -- and by the time I ate, I was usually hungry enough to reconsider some of my essential truths about foods, and also, it's hard to stay obsessed with breakfast when you're at the Musee D'Orsay.

I'm rolling into week two of my sushi fast, and it's hard, because eating my special foods is a compulsion and now I'm trolling for other compulsions. I'm obsessing about how much I run; on Saturday, I bought an issue of Shape magazine. But the particular consumption-compulsion that kept me going through much of the past year isn't there.

And it's clarifying for me a little how -- at least for me -- buying this thing, so I can feel this way, isn't (only, or even most immediately) an issue of social justice (I could eat sushi or, like, help dig a well in Cameroon). It's also an issue of my own quality of life, because if I'm getting through the day by imagining my run-and-sushi, I'm not calling my friends or taking comfort in the winning husband-and-child combo awaiting me each day or taking the risk of saying uncomfortable shit like:

  • I think I made a mistake. I think I made a series of mistakes and am now so far from the things I once believed I wanted that I no longer know what it is I want.
  • I think answers like, "Not my will, but His," are not meaningful in the sense I once believed they were, and I'm angry/hurt/raw over that, and I wonder if I gave up things that mattered to me in an effort to live out a belief that, in reality, is more a slogan than a principle.
  • Some days -- see my last post -- I'm genuinely excited by my job. A lot of other days, I just don't want to deal with it.

It's hard. And buying things, to eat or drink or wear or own, is a distraction, and makes it feel like things aren't so hard. But that's only because you're distracted.

So I'm trying to stop, sushi first. Because another thing I really loved about Paris is that consuming is not a project; that eating and drinking are part of everyday life, not activities. They just, you know, eat dinner. Then they go do something else. They don't really seem to understand about low-carb or gluten-free or Paleo diets, none of which seem much more healthy or normal to me than my Safe Foods diet, but all of which kind of allow eating like mine to seem life a lifestyle choice and not a symptom of a mental illness.

I'm so blessed and so grateful for my physical health -- that I feed myself, no matter what, or how weirdly, and that I don't throw up. But I'm tired of the weirdness I have about food, and the way it separates me from other people, and the way I settle for delicious sushi when I am stressed or ashamed or disappointed or entrenched in today's existential meltdown.

Sushi's really only the answer to the following problem: hunger. For September, I'm interested in figuring what other answers to non-hunger-related problems I can come up with.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Extreme Grace

I haven't written about grace in awhile -- I haven't written at all in awhile, because I've been all exploring Paris this and finishing nursing school that and by-the-by, my after-school program served full-on 216 6th graders a day this week, one of whom came up behind me yesterday and enveloped me in the Biggest Hug Ever, and it. was. amaze., considering that mostly I remember sixth grade boys as being simultaneously underwhelming and exhausting.

But here is grace: because I spiraled -- briefly, like I do -- from the kind of more expansive view of faith I referenced in my last post (remember that? hey, August Amanda!) to Total Emotional Collapse. And then, as is often the case, what seemed like the end of everything was actually just a giant paradigm shift: Oh Wow, as a certain spiky-headed compadre of mine likes to say.

So here's a few things I'm glad to have resolved for myself, things that I'm newly okay with:

  • I just have absolutely no interest in an existence structured around, and limited to, those things that can be intellectually understood, proven, and articulated discursively. Play by those rules, and you're just yanking away not just God but all my favorite things about life, like love and imagination and dreams and art.
  • It's totally possible that objective reality is a thing, but I find it entirely unlikely that an individual human can perceive it, or can see enough of it to make any but the most qualified and specific truth claims. 
  • Some people really love the challenge of trying to push fact and discourse to some sort of limit where it shows them the truth. I think that's awesome, and I will happily benefit from their technology and museums. But the things that interest me most don't have to do with discourse, logic or fact. I'd much rather use these tools to mess around with things dearer to my heart: stories, people, life and meaning. 
  • Also-also: irony may be my favorite tool of all, and it makes sense to me that if it's helpful in wrenching a position for myself in relation to say, Christianity, it's equally applicable when approaching other valuable, but incomplete, efforts at understanding the world, like rationalism, science, and the rest of modernities various little darlings. 

This is grace, and I want to pass out uncomfortably-illustrated pamphlets about it on the subway:

  • God doesn't take off because I stop thinking the things I learned about sin are true. 
  • I don't need to out-blog people who think different from me about Him, or explain in words a reality that exists outside of and before and around language. 
  • I don't need any special protection, either from people for whom the literal truth of the Bible is both assumed and necessary or from those who think that reading the Creation story as a gesture towards meaning rather than as scientific data leads directly to QED NO GOD. 

I can say: maybe I feel convinced of God and Christ's existence because I prefer a world understood on those terms, because that world -- however complex and contradictory and challenging -- is also a truer and more generative and more convincing account, for me. Yes, that is probably true.

For me, today (and hopefully moving forward, because this leitmotif is one I'd happily confine to Summer 2013), the Historical reality of a physical Jesus is just uninteresting, when instead I could attend to the experience of Christ in my life, today -- what that means for, say, prison reform or rude "stakeholders" or dealing with a screaming two year old or figuring out how to turn my essentially selfish nature towards the ongoing project of Being Married and other gettings-over of myself.

Why care so much about what Christ looked like in Galilee when clearly my day-to-day existence is screaming for some more attentive consideration of what Christ looks like accosted by panhandlers or managing a rocky start-up program in an urban middle school or as a working mom acclimating to a newly supporting-cast position in her life?

That's basically all I've got as far as apologetics go. I'm not sure what to tell people whose worldview demands that I agree with them in order to satisfy God, or that I do better at explaining myself in order to gain their permission to believe and feel the way I do about God without further intervention. Except for my Triumvirate of Most Awesome Phrases, magic with any custodians and sullen twelve year olds and aggrieved staff members alike:

I hadn't thought of it that way. 

Thank you for bringing that to my attention! 

Is there anything else you need from me?

BOOM. And 6 am came and went without an existential peep from a certain Baby of the World.

Any more grace up in this girl's life this week, and it'd be Christmas.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

no more blueprints: an end-of-nursing-school post

Now that I am done with nursing school:

1. I can volunteer more -- with Health Homes, where I'm orienting today, with the Visiting Nurses Association (in October), with the long-term care peds unit, with the shelter moms

2. I can write in my blog without feeling like I should be working on a blueprint

3. I can go back and reread all the things I read, and cared about, back in Med-Surg I and II and III, before my spirit was kind of broken by nursing school and its crazy assortment of bullshit

4. I can work on my youth development program full time, my trip to m-effing LONDON and PARIS notwithstanding

5. I can focus on my child in such a way that, m-effing London trip aside, he will hopefully not hit age three with the suffocating sense that he is always on the edge of Total Abandonment that has been so central to my own growing up process,

6. I can return, hopefully in a someone less rapid-cycling-bipolar kind of way, to preoccupations like:
  • the existence of God, and What That Might Mean for my life, 
  • sexuality, and my feelings about the development and production of Sexy Dancing Shows   and also art, and the development and production of shows, period, 
  • what it is, now, that I hope to do with my RN/multiple college degrees/ time/ ability/ life. Who needs help? What can I be giving? 
  • whether or not there are things I can do that don't constitute direct responses to the needs of others, and that I can also feel good about doing? Can I just, like, make meatballs for my child? Go running? Write a story? Make art?

One of the tremendous new nurses I have the privileges of knowing, who is not a mom or a Christian or, as far as I can tell, anxiety-disordered, turned to me after a solid ten hours of mutually not mothering or serving others or studying, and said, "you're just Amanda right now!"

For me, sidestepping a categorical kind of identity has always plunged me headlong into the kind of dismissal of any self that I associate with religion, and with which I have had a pretty tortured relationship for the past three decades. 

I don't know what it means to be just Amanda, because basically, the moment after I stop defining myself in terms of my grades or my weight or my resume, I remember that God doesn't want me to think about myself at all, as anything; I should be thinking about others, or Jesus, or whatever. (This revelation never seems to show up on time to interrupt my self-flagellation over my many and varied failures of character). 

But here I am: done with nursing school and its structure and constant stream of negative feedback, so useful for keeping me in my place -- which sounds unhealthy and unpleasant unless one is familiar with the profound anxiety engendered by belonging no place and being no one -- and also no longer convinced, or even intent of convincing myself, of the kind of God who can provide me with "an identity in Christ".

It's not that I stopped believing in God over the course of the past year; I just don't think God exists to provide me with a comfortable, coherent sense of my identity, or my purpose, or the world in which I live. Whatever the hell God might be doing, I don't think He's doing it in an effort to provide me with a comfy, prefab worldview: You are X  should be doing Y and avoiding Z. 

I don't have to be, or do, anything; don't have to study for any more tests, and also don't have to wrestle my mind into the undersized jeans of literal interpretations of Genesis or contemporary faith-talk or the big-H History of rationalism and its claims to universality. In a literal, terrifying, unstable-feeling sense, I can do whatever I want. That awareness has been there for awhile, but my compulsion to get through nursing school has provided a sort of structure as my evolving faith kind of shape-shifted into something less reassuringly constrictive. 

Strangely, my belief -- in the old-school, extra-cognitive sense of the world -- is stronger than it's been since about 1990. It's just that the God I believe in, now, is of limited use in the making of day-to-day decisions and construction of comforting little totems: this matters, and this, but not this. My sense is that this is a better, richer, space in which to live. But moving into it now, when I'm also letting go of all the pet obsessions that have dominated the nursing school experience -- the checking of Prime and endless iterations of study guides and select-all-that-apply practice questions and (oh my God) the effing list serve -- it's overwhelming, too. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

parenting lessons

So, I had to stop posting for the summer because so much else was going on, between nursing school (which is done in a week and a day, and I didn't start feeling this way until about June, but I'm so ready, now), booking three hundred free, subway-accessible, between-the-hours-of ten-and-and-one field trips for the twelve hundred kids my agency served this summer, and, mostly, my son becoming a toddler and the challenges this posed to my marriage, followed closely by the realization -- a cliche for almost everyone else who is married, I guess, but relatively new for me, even five years in -- that marriage takes work.

Basically, after a decade of dating people who acted like children -- because it allowed me the sense of invulnerability enjoyed by bullies everywhere -- I married an adult, and was able to enjoy the license that afforded me to act like a child, myself, as I worked through the collection of slights, real and imagined, that I've been carrying around like fetish objects for most of my life. And then an actual child, a human being who wants things and really can't understand why he can't have them, who needs things and still expects that those needs will be met, entered the picture, and my extremely patient husband aside, our hip little apartment was no longer big enough for both of our drama.

And T-Mac, this new permutation of our son, has drama to rival half a dozen seven grade lunchrooms plus a reality tv show. This is a child who has no compunction about full on flinging his face onto the nearest surface, be it dirt, wood, concrete, or freshly-smeared tar, because I ever-so-diplomatically inserted myself between his body and the brewing pot of coffee/box of cat excrement/oncoming traffic into which he is so purposefully header.

And this is the maddening thing about parenthood: it's a one way ticket into a universe into which rights, justice, and cause and effect have no meaning. It is not fair that, after a solid hour of attempting to operate a stove in an unconditioned, ninety-eight degree house, cleaning as I go, desperately attempting to redirect a toddler away from our patently unsafe, blazing-to-the-touch stovefront, I wrestle the kid into his high chair just in time to function as an audience as he full-on flings a fistful of the food in my direction (thankfully, his gross motor coordination is still undeveloped enough that I can remain fuzzy on whether or not he was going for the eyes), then, casually as your textbook sociopath, pulls the overpriced, suction-equipped, frog-shaped bowl from ikea off his tray, adducts his right arm, and watches as the aforementioned labor of love plops onto the floor. In a perfect world, my son, and not myself, would be subject to teeth-sucking from our various neighbors when he appears in forty-eight degree weather without a hat, since I am not the one who repeatedly rips the many hats that have been purchased for me off of my head and drops them onto the street when those charged with keeping my head covered are negotiating Park Slope sidewalks (and, let's not play, occasionally texting). One is tempted, in one's darker moments, to believe that simply dumping one's screaming child into his crib "for his own good" since he is clearly in need of a nap, or giving him a time-out for not listening when one reiterates that the cat box is dirty and mommy does not want to pull any more of her textbooks out of it, might be considered something other than totally self-serving.

But it's been the absolute best thing for me, as a (one-day) nurse and current youth-developer and volunteer walker/changer of diapers/spoon-feeder of disabled and medically fragile kids. Because Mac's total inability to cope with not getting what he wants and needs stems from an absolute lack of awareness that sometimes you just have to deal. Whereas, for most of the kids and adults and clients and students with whom I work and hope to work, life has been a long stretch of dealing with everything from being talked to as though one's presence is a personal affront, to having one's food mixed together and shoveled into one's mouth like an animal, to being handled xeroxed copies of word searches out of a third grade textbook by one's special education teacher. And for all the fun dialogue and talking points about those kids who deal by remaining defined and dominated by outrage, and all the havoc that population perpetuates on the lives of others, I'm equally stricken by those kids who, like my kids in the pediatric nursing home where I volunteer, just stop crying and kicking and screaming over it.

The indifference seems totally intractable at some point, and I've outgrown the sanctimonious rage, blind in the truest sense of the word, that I once felt at nurses and techs and everyone else who lets people suffer. I can't absolve them for failing to act as though their patients are human beings, however hard they may work and whatever the conditions; but I recognize now, that absolution is not useful and is not mine to give, anyway. Some people can be saved or sustained by a single person, at least for awhile. Most can't; certainly the kids I work with can't. They need lots of people to recognize they are human; they need their nurses and speech pathologists and every single tech they encounter to recognize it. And the only way to get to a world in which that need even bears articulation is to focus one's life, over and over again, on the reality that what one does, matters; to see the needs of others, not as whims they need to learn to suppress or as deficits, the cure for which is maturity and some imaginary virus or "doing without" that those with more are so eager to recommend to those with less, but as real, their method of dealing with them notwithstanding.

However deserved a given episode of pain or loneliness or grief might be, I don't want my son to have to experience it if it can be avoided, or to go through it alone, if I can be with him. And the fear of "spoiling" a child notwithstanding, I've found that the world delivers all of the above to even the most cared-for, privileged children with some regularity. I don't ever want to be a nursing student again; but I do want to be a nurse, more than ever, although the path seems longer now than I'd thought and although just finishing the degree with my excellent child en tow almost killed me. Because while everyone eventually learns their needs can't always be met, no one, least of all little kids, should organize their worldview around the belief that their needs do not matter.

Friday, May 17, 2013


So far, the best lesson I've learned in nursing school came late last summer when, in an effort to self-regulate at the expense of those around me (like I do), I emoted to a then-acquaintance, now-friend about how even though I know I should, I just "don't take criticism well".

"No one does," she told me.

It was transformative. I don't really have any interest in the shortcomings of others, but I am endlessly preoccupied with my own -- a kind of hemianopsia, if you will, that leads me to believe that I am particularly petty as opposed to just run-of-the-mill, human petty. As evidenced by this little personal failing: I am not going to Nursing School Convocation because I do not enjoy watching other people receive awards.

And other reasons! For example, I work Tuesday nights. But to be honest, had I been winning an award, I likely would have tried to call out, because I work, like, all the time, and if I'm not working, I'm traveling to or from work, or attempting to keep my child from eating cat feces/coins/things he found in my purse that can no longer be identified. Sometimes, you just have to change your work schedule/take a sick day/leave your wailing child in the arms of his long-suffering father and hope they don't pass one of those $400 Divorce signs on the way home.

So, if they were to give out awards for being, you know, a selfless person or a good friend (in one of our school's rare incidences of getting something right the first time, my amazing nursing friend L won an award for, like, delivering a baby on her first day in OB), I'd be in the exact same position I am in now.

But lookit: in the same way that my insatiable desire to eat food faded into the background once I started to feed myself, I believe my insatiable need for validation might quiet itself just a little if I can channel some of my stellar list-making abilities into the making of lists that sustain rather than impoverishing my sense of worth. Below: my very own convocation awards list, starring my very own damn self:

The Award for Getting 100% in Pharmacology Before Every Other Grade in the Class Also Got Curved to 100% (goes to): Mandy B!

Most Likely to End the Twin Scourges of Moon Face and Truncal Obesity (goes to): Mandy B!

The Award for Outstanding Courage in the Face of Being Body-Checked by Giant, Angry Med-Surge Nurses (goes to): Mandy B! 

The Award for Most Hours Spent Obsessing about the Distinction between A and A- (goes to) Mandy B!

The Nabisco (Tm) Certificate of Appreciation for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Packaged Snack Consumption (goes to): Mandy B!

So, as a five-time-nursing-school award winner (unheard of!), I'm declaring this day Convocation for Everybody. Because while I suspect that some people I know genuinely enjoy celebrating the successes of those around them while their own efforts fail to generate certificates of any kind, I maintain a kind of Don't Ask Don't Tell policy regarding that level of personal evolution.

I mean, not everyone was born to go around pulling babies out of other people's vaginas. Just because you haven't done anything fabulous doesn't mean you're not inherently fabulous. You should celebrate your damn self, too -- nurse or not.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


oh my God, nursing school.

I've gotten hopelessly sidetracked, like I do, on the issue of how to get CAMBA summer camps staffed. And I think that -- in the interest of saving face by not being there very last one to acknowledge an obvious truth about myself -- I should just admit that my heart truly may belong to CAMBA.

I also care about nursing school, of course. But I've gotten to the point in the semester where no matter what, everything I'm doing is just damage control. There's no longer enough time left to do truly well -- just to (hopefully) do well enough not to hate myself when grades come out.

And I'd rather be blogging, but I have nothing to say, really, because, apart from nursing and volunteering and working and mom-ing and wife-ing -- and being some permutation of Not Good Enough at each -- the big thing in my life is my ongoing nasty schoolyard fight to not lose my everloving mind.

Months like this, I know I'm ultimately going to end up working in community mental health or psych in some capacity. Because, while I'm relieved to no longer be mired in the kind of adolescent melodrama that glamorizes craziness as a topic for earnest Bright Eyes songs or whatever, the adult option -- to take for granted that people just come ready and able to get through the fucking day -- is kind of a Gwyneth Paltrow response to the lives that people actually live. I spend a hefty portion of my workweek interacting with people trying to find work, each with a different reason why they are looking, and I don't believe that some people just handle their internal conflicts better than others. The Vassar grad who is looking for a way to give back to community between her stint with the School for International Training and applying to NYU's public interest law program is not fighting the same struggle as the Peer Specialist working per diem in the housing center where she was a client a year ago.

I've been deeply fortunate, to have had the assistance I've had -- stable, supportive people in my life, adequate health care, an education, consistent work. And still: many, many days, I am going through the various activities to which I've committed only because having something to do is a key part of the only thing that matters, which is to keep from damaging myself in some way over how I feel.

Someone mentioned to me recently that this is not unusual. It should be, though. Not because I personally "shouldn't have to" justify to myself why I've not yet taken my life over my GPA/weight gain/inability to clean the house to my husband's (reasonable!) specifications, but because fruitless expenditures of energy and purposeless suffering are just shitty, no matter the backyard into which they fall.

And while I do think that there is an honest-to-God chemical component to why I feel the way I feel, and while I do understand that ultimately, one has to take responsibility for coping with one's own life, regardless of the unhelpful inclination to see that coping as self-indulgent and to attach a moral imperative to hurting and depriving oneself, I also think that the society we live in is emotionally dis-abling. It is very hard to be mentally healthy in a world that celebrates so much that is pyschologically and emotionally damaging. I suspect this is the case regardless of the particular brain chemistry and coping strategies one holds. I know it is the case for someone who hovers on the edge of requiring formal therapeutic intervention, as I have for most of my life.

If it is this hard for me to just keep getting through the day, when the material circumstances of my life are ones of almost dizzying privilege: what is it like for this candidate who I just turned down for an $8 an hour job because of her shoddy work history? What is it like for this patient, who is seventeen and whose parents have committed her to a nursing home? What is it like for this subway passenger, who just lurched at me and my child, apparently unsure whether she wanted to assault us or ask us for money?

And how does one make it easier, and better, for all of us? Because that narrative about individual self-sufficiency and just trying harder sounds like a intellectually lazy senior's college essay right now: a clattering of words unfettered by content or meaning. And because of that, my efforts to keep my own shit together, removed from efforts to create a world in which the keeping together of one's shit is prioritized and respected as both an individual right and a social good, are similarly meaningless.

I want to live in a world in which I don't lie awake tormented over fears of poverty or age or illness, because the poor, old, and sick aren't abandoned and shat upon. I want to live in a work in which getting a B doesn't necessitate self-harm, because people, myself included, are considered to have intrinsic value. Most of all: I want to live in a world in which my own crappy and nasty behavior towards myself isn't given such a wide berth, because nastiness and ugliness, in general, aren't excused as the occupational hazard of being so very Busy and Important and Urban.

Friday, April 5, 2013

what a fun, sexy time for you!

I've been interested in health care my whole life. If I hadn't been bulimic, I think, I probably would have gone to medical school. (No joke: if you have someone in your life with an eating disorder, get them help, even if they aren't that thin, even if they don't seem to want it.) But for awhile, I seguewayed into the "academic world", a world in which excellence for its own sake is valued so unquestioningly that, should I have continued, my entire dissertation likely would have addressed Whitman and Dickinson's respective uses of spaces and line breaks, and what each has to say to us about object relations and the construction of identity.

These days, instead of that, the biggest contributions I make in the world include: plucking chin hairs for patients who cannot use their hands well, patting the backs of cognitively impaired toddlers and children, and remembering to talk to people when I am feeding them Ensure through the tubes in their bellies.

I sometimes think that I used to be super interested in sex -- so much so that, which each seminar I took, I moved further than the traditional lit-crit that had gotten me into graduate school and more firmly into truly remarkable gender/queer/sexuality studies circles that spring up like crocuses when one is studying in rural Texas -- and then, suddenly, I burned out and wasn't interested any more.

But this isn't strictly true. I was always up for talking about sex in college and graduate school. If I was having it, though, chances are I was thinking about my Whitman paper, at least after the first five minutes. Sex is like food, for me: I like it, but I don't really understand people who describe themselves as "foodies" and will devote free time to planning and executing of eating projects. Why learn to cook when one can spread peanut butter on toast, pop some frozen broccoli in the microwave, and go back to researching microlending online or studying liver disfunction?

This attitude may have been a sort of self preservation when I was in my early twenties. One of the few things Girls gets right is that casual sex is often shitty and awkward and perfunctory, and while I guess a lot of women relate to the experience of spending large amounts of time and money to prep their bodies for an experience that ultimately ranks a distant second to watching reruns in pajamas while snacking, I pretty much ended most of my "dates" in a existential quasi-crisis: life is so short, and I just spent two hours of mine listening to this person's thoughts on Quentin Tarantino, and now he is sleeping on my arm and I cannot leave. So, you know, I just found other things to do.

Being married, I am presented with the option of life-affirming, healthy, enjoyable sex. And so my feeling that I should be spending my time doing more "useful" things is exacerbated, because sex is now pleasurable, which, in my mind, means selfish.

This is why I think the bullshit apparatus of "women, submit yourselves to your husbands" and the belief that women should be sexually available to their spouses, however oppressive for a healthy woman, can be useful to women who have been taught that they should always be focused on caring for others -- useful in the sense that, without it, they would likely never have sex of any kind, which, well, we see how well that works (hi, Catholicism!). There is no space in that belief system for having sex because it is enjoyable; the only acceptable reason would be out of love for your spouse.

To actually enable women to feel okay about having sex because sex is enjoyable would require an interruption of the narrative that a woman's value is measured in her usefulness -- which is to say, a radical interruption of our anachronistic-but-not-really economic language in which women hover between object and the owners of objects. Because it's not just the "religious right" that insists on confusing the things a woman can do for others with her inherent value. New York City is littered with magazines, subway ads, and obnoxious commuters who are eager to remind any interested woman that she is failing to provide anything of value -- sexually, economically, aesthetically, whatever.

For me -- who threw in the towel at about twenty-five when if comes to trying to be of aesthetic or sexual value to anyone outside my marriage -- there is still enormous pressure to be of service to those around me, to have something to offer others. It both propels and (more often) interferes with the genuine concern I might feel for others and the desire to help them for their own sake. It also interferes with living my life: just how much time is it okay to spend having sex, eating food, playing with my child, when people are dying and people are lonely and people are unschooled?

How much time am I willing to spend on activities that are self-serving, on my own relationships and health and quality of life? Because I was taught that "none" is the appropriate amount. And, to be honest, there are days in which I just want to walk away from Christianity, because the same way that some people look in the Bible and can't see any way to read it that doesn't condemn homosexuality, I look in the Bible and can't see any way to read it that doesn't demand that I spend less time caring for myself, and more time caring for others. And for me, the logical extension of that is: if less time on me is better, no time on myself is best. And it is difficult to discern where the doctrine stops and the mental illness begins -- or if, as dark a notion as it is and as much as I dislike Hitchens, there isn't some legitimacy to the idea that religion is, itself, a kind of mental illness.

I don't know know if it is gender, or religion, or what, that makes it seem like things not done to serve others are not worth doing. Or why it is so profoundly threatening to me to devote any amount of time to any other area of life. But to the extent that I do believe that sex can be a natural, zesty enterprise, I think it is critical to helping us (me?) remember that we are meant to engage others relationally rather than functionally. Wanting to be of use to others is better than using others, sure. But loving others in a way that allows them to make your life better, too -- risking a relationship that can't double as a talking point in whatever cosmic beauty pageant you imagine yourself entering -- that, it seems to me, is actually best, is what we were made for. Terrifying and messy as it is.

Friday, March 15, 2013

nurse-tastic: part 2

Among the most exciting aspects of nursing school is the constant knowledge that for once I'm doing exactly what I want to do, something I thought of entirely by myself, without a professor or a fellowship or a giant ideological project like Closing the Achievement Gap to compel me. That knowledge is essential is dealing with one of the least exciting elements of nursing school -- that is, the general consensus among nurses, my professors included, that I am a useless and unsolicited intrusion into the field, and my audacity in trying to enter it is mitigated only by the fact that I won't be able to get a job, anyway. In an effort not to sink into a mire of despair, I spend a lot of my down time reminding myself of why I chose to become a nurse in the first place.

There are the reasons I put on my application to nursing school, clacked out in a thrum of third-trimester certitude. (Judd Apatow and my crazed OBGYN professor to the contrary, pregnancy is not some sort of underscored special case of the female condition, where "the female condition" is to be a mewling, unreasonable interruption in the lives of otherwise high-functioning men such as Seth Rogan. For me -- whose brain chemistry generally resembles the workspace of a bright-but-inattentive college sophomore -- being pregnant was the closest I've come to glimpsing how people live when they aren't thrust into existential panic over their decision to buy new pants or go on vacation when no one has yet found a cure for ALS.)

According to my nursing school application, I wanted to be useful. This is true. But I said something pretty similar in my applications to law school, and, although the deans of a (small) number of Tier-I schools found those essays convincing, they really shouldn't have. In point of fact, my ability to convince Columbia to admit me to a program for which I lack every imaginable qualification beyond a generous LSAT score left me feeling so soulless and insubstantial a person that for a good fifteen minutes, it seemed to me that maybe I should be a lawyer. 

The difference between nursing and law isn't that lawyers aren't useful (I guess; to be honest, I still have a blurry picture in my mind of what, exactly, lawyers do). For me, the compelling distinction -- that is, the distinction that compels me to stay in nursing school despite all the shitty-feeling new manners of growth that nursing entails -- is that nursing attends to bodies, and bodies have been my issue, my preoccupation, for most of my life. 

Basically, my deal is this: I am terrified of pain, and I am terrified to die, and I am, more deeply than anything else, terrified that my body truly is all the awful things I have imagined it to be at various points in my life. These fears settle in different parts of my body and mind, moving in and out of my way, depending on dumb luck, my spiritual practice, the time of day and how well I am sleeping and whether or not I've overdone it with the coffee this week. 

This is my experience in a body that is privileged in every way except (maybe) gender, a body that, today, is healthy and able and basically young. To deal with these fears, for it to mean anything when I tell myself it's okay, I need for it to be okay, not just for me, in my body now, but for people whose bodies aren't working, people who can't care for themselves, people for whom pain and disability and death are not abstractions or morbid little fantasies. 

And from what I've seen, much, much too often, it's not okay. The same way life is not okay for people who are poor, life is totally not okay for a huge number of people who are sick, disabled, dying, old. 

It is not okay that the children I see (maybe) one day a week at the nursing home spend their lives mostly bored, lonely, and in pain. 

It is not okay that people sit in their own shit, lie howling like animals in their beds, spend their first or last hours on earth in pain that could be managed, but isn't. 

It isn't okay with me that one's quality of life is determined by how well one's body happens to work right now. It shouldn't really be okay with anyone: of all possible forms of inequality, the disempowerment of the sick, of the old, of the disabled, makes the least sense, since almost everyone will ultimately fall into one or all of those classes. 

And I don't know what to do. Poverty is visible; my reasons for not doing more about it are overwhelmingly just the basic, run-of-the mill personal failings I always mean to overcome and almost never do. Kids are dying of malaria, but those kids are far away; Sushi Tatsu and Starbucks and Target are all so much closer.

One of the reasons why so many people live the way they do, here, in a country where the standard of living almost seems like a parody of itself at times, is because it is sometimes very hard to gain access to the places where these people are kept. You pretty much have to be a nurse; doctors are often accused of treating the body rather than the patient, but right now the expectation seems to be more that they treat the disease, not the body. 

How your body feels, how it looks to you, whether and where and how it eats and sleeps and shits -- to meet you in any of those places, I have to be your nurse. No one else really gets access there. And so no one else is in the same position to affirm, right now, in this moment: it is okay. You don't have to be in pain right now. Your body, your life, is not garbage to be thrown out or ignored or hidden -- not now, while you are living, and not later, while you are dead. However invisible you may feel, whatever has been taken from you or done to you, you are still valuable.

In just one of the many chapters of My Impasses with Atheism, a friend and I fell out over whether or not it is meaningful to say that a person has intrinsic value, if that person has no one to value them. Because I believe in a God who is omniscient, I say with conviction that everyone has value. (While I think there are atheists who would agree with this,  my friend isn't one of them.) More than my need to believe in an afterlife or in the inherent goodness of the world, I think, this is what compels my faith. I'm unable to shake the belief that everyone, even my patients who cannot speak or move or respond, who hold precisely no capital as most of us understand it, are valuable, are lovable, and that the world is only as it should be when they are being treated accordingly.

This belief is why nursing, and not law or teaching or management. Because there are people who matter, who have value, and to whom the only useful response to that value at this moment is to push morphine, to knead the spasms out of their neck, to care whether or not they are eating. Because my faith, however mustard-seedlike, is largely wrapped up in my belief that I am to love those around me, and this is the kind of love I understand best: the kind that keeps its mouth shut and goes about its business. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


So, Girls. If you don't watch this show, it's about a privileged girls living in a magic alterna-Brooklyn in which everyone is white and pays for things with monopoly money (I guess....)

Now, everyone has criticized Girls for this already, and I will point out that, you know, a culture that produces twenty-six-year-olds who have not yet experienced "I want this thing, but I can't have it" as an economic reality (not in the sense of, this boy doesn't like me, or I didn't get into Columbia) should maybe casts its gaze towards the mirror rather than at individual young women who reflect that reality. Life is a different thing when you do and do not have to pay your own rent. The fact that Girls focuses so much more on Lena Dunham being naked than it does on actually depicting that reality is only annoying insofar as it is annoying to spend your twenties getting up at 6 and working fifty hours and commuting two and wearing the same four pairs of pants and not getting haircuts, and then to be told given a picture of well-dressed, well-nourished girls eating cupcakes in bathtubs and told, We get you.

But TV isn't going to represent life, and it's equally stupid to complain it should and to herald an obviously fanciful view of a world in which no one really has to work as "gritty" or "real". The difference between Sex and the City and Girls is that the women in Sex and the City are likable and attractive, and they have jobs that support their spending, because, conventionally, that is how people live.

Really it's not, of course -- Mary Crawley doesn't spend a lot of time concerned about paying the bills, for example. It's always been the case that some people have to work and some people don't. It is super irritating to be handed a person who does not have to work or who is somehow living in Greenpoint but working at a coffee shop -- because whaaaat? Does she have stock in it? -- and be told that this is the voice of any generation. (I do feel much better after resolving with my husband that a generation gap exists between kids born in the early and late 1980s; something about using hardbound encyclopedias rather than computers to write book reports. I'm just old!)

Because in the Brooklyn in which I live, I am privileged, because I can afford to borrow the money to attend an accelerated public nursing program while working between one and three jobs and raising my son, who I leave in a day care center where he is occasionally bitten but otherwise does okay. When I am walking him there, I see one of the gentlemen from the drop-in center where I used to work; he has housing now, after over a year, and he remembers me. The kids at the bus stop are wearing the generic uniforms required by the corporate charter schools blooming around our part of the city, schools at which the rigors of Being an Artist are a distant concern; schools staffed by slightly less privileged versions of Hannah who do have the distinction of recognizing that the world includes other people and formulating a response to that fact that doesn't involve taking off their clothes.

When I go to work, I am either teaching the sullen teenage children of Chinese immigrants in Bay Ridge or booking free field trips for kids in Flatbush. In my free time, I like to take care of disabled children in nursing homes. I'd like a TV show about someone who enjoys these things -- who spent her twenties looking for responsible ways to respond to the needs of others and sees her sexual exploits as a boring, common sidebar to real life, rather than a profound artistic statement.

But people (almost) always prefer watching you have sex than dealing with your opinions, ideas or beliefs; it's not a triumph to get them to do so when you're 150 pounds instead of 110. People  (almost) always prefer the illusion that really, the current social system is working -- just get a job in a coffee shop; at 7.50 an hour, less taxes, that $210 a week will certainly cover your share of a $1800 apartment. How fortunate that you found the only apartment in Greenpoint that costs that much!

It isn't feminist or empowering just to be a woman and talk, or make art, especially if you're just talking about sex and taking pictures of your own naked body.

I can see how it is refreshing to see an ordinary looking woman naked on TV. But truth bomb, here: you can be ordinary looking, not a model, and still find people who want to look at you naked, and that "triumph" is in no way a replacement for being respected, or being listened to, or taking meaningful action with your life.

I think it actually may not even be a generation gap here, as much as it my own disappointment with the way that the Third Wave of feminism turned the whole thing into a fight to be approved of as a sexual object, regardless of the size of your ass.

I just want a story about women who do things that don't involve getting a man, or talking with da girls about her man, or empowering herself by having sex, because fine if you want to do that, but understand that the person you are sleeping with is getting sex, and everyone else is getting to look at a young, naked body -- so the fact that it's not thin isn't actually "showing them" or challenging them the way you may think it is. A transgendered body? I'll buy that that's subversive. A disabled body? Sure. A healthy, young, hetero-normative body that happens to be a little fuller-figured than the norm? Be as naked as you want; it's not appreciably different from any other pretty white flesh onscreen just because there's more of it up there.

I want a story in which women relate to the world around them in the way men (sometimes) do in art and literature and TV and movies: that is to say, by mattering to someone who is not them, their bff, or the guy they're dating. I just want someone to make a TV show about Dvera Saxton or Magdelena Schmidt or Hilary Davis, any of whom actually has so many things to say and so many things going on that they don't have to take their shirt off to keep anyone's interest.

Because: really, whether you are gorgeous or average, fat or thin, curvy or not, you're not automatically defined by your body and its erotic or aesthetic possibilities, just because you are female. There are so many more interesting options than being conventionally attractive and naked or non-conventionally attractive and naked.

And I would need to dig out my critical theory book to get into it, but I feel like the biggest problem with Girls is the way it presents an adulthood stripped of any sense of responsibility to one's community or world, any grappling with problems outside oneself, and any effort to come to terms with one's position in a world that is giving you these privileges not only in juxtaposition to, but at the expense of, other people. The system that makes Girls possible is the same economic system that makes a lot of other, radically different lives inevitable here in Brooklyn. I'd watch Hannah do whatever she wanted with her zaftig self if she'd stop and free-associate about that at any point.

Monday, February 25, 2013

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

Honestly, my attitude most of the time is that eating disorders are less important than other diseases, because you can't control your Dandy Walker Syndrome, but you can just stop throwing up your food. You know? How "you" can do that?

I mean, I couldn't do that, not after three inpatient stays and thousands and thousands of insurance dollars and seventeen years, not after destroying teeth and friendships and opportunities, not after missing huge chunks of grade school and high school and college and life. But "you" -- that stellar rhetorical construct whose referent is always serendipitously MIA -- you can. You can do anything you set your mind to. (Just look at how well you do when "crutches" like affirmative action and food stamps are excised from the budget!)

For me, of course, it is taking divine intervention to recover from my bulimia. Which is to say, however self-consciously: I prayed to get better, I pray every time I feel my grip slipping on my recovery, and -- though God knows I've tried every other avenue recommended to me, and found some of them helpful (and some not: cutting out wheat and sugar? Not so much) -- for me, my experience of no longer being bulimic is primarily an experience in which, every day, my ass is saved by something larger than myself.

 "A friend who does not believe in God says, 'Maybe not a miracle, but a little improvement,' but to that I say, Listen! You must not have heard me right: I couldn't feed myself! So thanks for your input, but I know where I was, and I know where I am now, and you just can't get here from there.  Something happened that I had despaired would ever happened... [and] whatever it was, learning to eat was about learning to live--and deciding to live; and it is one of the most radical things I've ever done"  -- Anne Lamott

In OA, the most hardcore of us talk about a daily reprieve rather than recovery. I am reluctant to commit to a truth claim that I could just relapse at any second; I believe that, having kept me well for almost two years, God's unlikely to drop the ball or start fucking around with me now. I know the world is full of horrible, random things that I can't explain; but in my experience, I've been cared for and healed and right now, I have no real reason to expect a change.

Having said that, this is Eating Disorder Awareness Week. So, this week, I also want to bear in mind:

1. Whatever the plan is for me, however blessed I have been, lots and lots of people still suffer tremendously from eating disorders.

2. For someone actively in an eating disorder, the fact that they do not have spina bifida or brain cancer or whatever is surprisingly beside the point. It is difficult for me to fully to communicate how devastating anorexia and bulimia have been in my own life -- partially because I find it painful to remember who I was, what I did, and what I felt when I was sick, and partially because when I try to do so, I end up feeling histrionic. However doggedly we romanticize female self-sacrifice and delicacy, however insistently we shame the overweight for being "greedy" or whatever, the reality is that, when I was eating disordered, I was a deeply selfish, ugly person, and it is a struggle to feel compassionate rather than embarrassed when I remember that time in my life.

3. I believe that my recovery was an act of God, but I don't believe it was spontaneous, easy, or even truly sudden. I struggled with bulimia for seventeen years before I was able to stop binging and purging. I got used to things that people should not have to get used to; I experienced things that, however they might pale next to, say, receiving chemotherapy or being confined to a wheelchair, I would never want anyone else to experience. And even for God, my recovery has been a project, and remains an ongoing pain in the ass.

So, eating disorders: however we may enjoy the benefits of a culture that privileges a kind of body that often is maintained only through severe and chronic mental illness, ultimately this is not a win.

Check out NEDA's website to learn more. While nothing friends, family, or society does will make a person eating disordered or cure them from their disease, it is the case that we live in a society that rewards anorexia and bulimia in a way that it does not reward, say, cocaine addiction or schizophrenia. The more accommodating our society becomes to individuals with healthy bodies and minds, the less intractable these diseases will prove.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

gratitude post

In an effort to make up for taking off in an existential huff for a week and a half, here are 10  5 (because bonus: I also got a job!) unqualified-ly excellent things that have happened in the interim since my last post:

1. my Dandy Walker kiddo! Okay, actually, not excellent; Dandy Walker is a fascinating, but distressing, medical condition involving hydrocephaly and, often (but not always!) developmental disability. However, as nursing student experiences go, it's definitely bi-winning to get assigned to that patient. My research into Dandy walker also turned me onto  -- and, if you know me, you know there's no way I'd rather spend a free Friday night than doing shots and learning about rare diseases (much to the chagrin of my husband, who generally is able to redirect me to less blatantly disordered means of re-creating). 

2. You may remember my distress over my last Peds test. As it turns out, thanks to a whopping curve, I managed a 95% -- every point of which I will need, since I gather that the second test, which I am making up tomorrow, was much harder. (But as a thank-you to everyone who assured me I'd do fine on test #1, I'm just not going to indulge whatever meltdown this second test precipitates.)

3. Also: knitting! I still can't do it! But I can crochet, and crochet I do, aggressively and pointedly, in response to the myriad interpersonal conflicts I must navigate now that I 1. have a personality, rather than a DSM IV entry and 2. am less blissed-out on preggo hormones. (I don't know what kind of babies those cranky pregnant ladies were growing, but I felt amazing when I was pregnant, and not just because I found the body projects associated with growing a human to be much less odious and inane than those associated with Being Sexually Presentable, or whatever one would call that project that assumes I'm eager to spend large portions of disposable income disposing of any and all of the hair on my body, less my eyelashes.) 

Crocheting is like yoga, only better, because I actually have time to crochet and can combine it with other activities I do daily, including: talking to my husband and child about Things Other than Nursing School, making up songs about Congestive Heart Failure, watching every episode of Community the minute I can find and illegally download it, ignoring the palpable resentment of Subway Guy Who Had This Whole Seat to Himself! Gawd!

Also, if you crochet while your child is staging an Epic Tantrum (...yes, we're there now!), you are Planned-Ignoring him, which is a strategy; if slip down the street to BYC to collect yourself, you are neglecting him, which is illegal. 

4. My nurses, those writers of 40-page blueprints, bakers of wholesome cookies, interrupters of my own Epic Tantrums r/t cognitive dissonance, unanswered emails, and only-vaguely-English-speaking instructors (some of whom appear to speak no language other than English, unless you count American Stank Face (ASF?). It is absolutely the case that I am learning a great deal in nursing school, and I only wish that I could re-direct my student loan moneys to the individuals actually supplying the education my awesome father borrowed against his mortgage to co-sign on. 

5. Seriously, my nurses. By the grace of an at-least-occassionally smily and benevolent God, I got thrust into an amazing family the first time (see #4, above). It blows my mind at times, the way I've stumbled into another terrific group of people thirty years later. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

penis, envy

So, in a brief interlude during studying for The Peds Exam last Monday -- brought on by our textbook's discouraging claim that gender identity is established in children by age 3 -- I had the opportunity to speak to a classmate who really likes being a woman. Likes it so much, in fact, that she was startled that I don't like it -- that, if I could choose to be straight, I wouldn't (also shocking!), but if I could choose to be a man, I totally might.

This isn't the first time that my dislike of being female has been at issue. It comes up often, for example, with my husband -- I'm not sure what it is he thinks we're all doing --

This? -- 

but it was probably the first time that another woman has expressed surprise that I don't wake up each morning thrilled over another round of Lean Cuisine, ironic-but-not-really injokes  whose punchline inevitably is fuck my life, I'm old, and coexistence with the knowledge that not just Lena Dunham, but a large chunk of anonymous white men somewhere (perhaps the same ones determining the Republican Party's policies on reproductive rights?) believe that the TV show Girls speaks for me. 

The thing is, I was equally surprised that my friend does enjoy being a woman, especially given that this friend lives in a community in which gender roles arguably are both more rigid and more explicit than in mainstream culture (she's an Orthodox Jew). And especially since her personality -- she is not only most often the smartest person in a given room; she is also extremely direct, ambitious, and goal-oriented -- is comprised of characteristics that that I associate with being male, things that, in all the time that  I've been dating men and marrying men (just the one, but still) and producing little men, have just never been tenable traits for a woman to have. It's not just awkward for a woman to be the way she is; Judd Apatow, et al, have constructed a sizable franchise making the point that women Like This ruin men's lives.  

I don't know enough about Orthodox culture to really unpack the interesting, and delightful, prospect that a woman with so many "male" characteristics can feel so comfortable occupying a female space. But it did make me think a lot about this:

On paper, officially, I have way more options than your average Orthodox wife-and-mother when it comes to experiencing what the kids at Excelsior publishing call my "sense of being female". No one is expecting me to cook dinner for my husband or stay home from church to watch the kids while my husband relates to God. It's no longer even really acceptable to endorse restrictions like that, and those of us living in mainstream culture make a lot out of the restrictions and expectations to which female members of religious minorities are subject. (If I hear one more time about how horrified someone is by the burkha...)

And yet, women in these cultures often seem to me to be, not just happier (as though what we all really want is to be domestic and "submissive") but more assertive, more complete, than women who have no reason to identify themselves through the men in their lives -- but choose to do so anyway. 

I think the thing is: the rules for what women do in a given community can be restrictive, but because they are explicit, they are also limited: we expect you to x and y. The expectations for being a woman in our "mainstream" culture are invisible: no one is really going to come out and say anymore, You don't deserve to have sex if you weigh more than 150 pounds -- but I feel strongly that that is the case, and that entire industries exist and are sustained by the fact that that is what a lot of women believe, and that because it's never actually put into words, it can, on another day, morph into, You don't deserve to walk down the street if your ass is too fat, where "too fat" is determined, not by a number that stays the same, but by anyone who has a penis and is on that street. 

The non-rule might -- and will, should you reach that magical land of "thin enough" -- change shape so weight is no longer the issue. Should you not be personally attractive to Men,  should you have lines on your face or hair on your back, you are not only not Hot, but your lack of hotness becomes a punchline that creeps up and flings itself in your path when you really thought you were just going to the post office. 

The thing is, all of the maintstream images of how to be a woman communicate much more about how not to be a woman: don't not be a MILF, or you're disgusting and passé and your life is over and your child has ended it by "destroying" your body. (Bear in mind that when childbirth "destroys" a mainstream American woman's body, it isn't because, say, fistulas have left her incontinent or seizures have left her dead; it is because her breasts and hips no longer look like those of a twenty-five-year old.) Don't not be "sexy", or -- whether you are Lena Dunham or Hillary Clinton -- when people get done actually addressing whatever you've done or failed to do, they can, and will, slap on the corollary "and she looks like [whatever, a horse or a fat little boy or a fat little boy horse]".

Perhaps how you look is no longer vulnerable: I am less "attractive" than I was at twenty, but because a man values me enough to marry me and stay faithful to me, my value no longer hinges on what Men think. His approval is my get-out-of-jail free card, because while your average asshole on the street may not feel I measure up, he no longer has the power to determine my value absolutely; this other guy's opinion matters. The claim that I am entirely worthless is no longer valid, is no longer available to any man who dislikes me, because this other man values me.

The trade off, of course, is the incredible power that man has, by virtue of the fact that his approval, his estimation of how valuable you are, now comprises your worth. You don't have to be thin or hot anymore. Now, you can run an errand or wear a skirt without opening yourself to ridicule, provided he still thinks you're doing okay. And because he is an actual person, because he actually exists, it is possible to obtain his approval. Whereas before, well, there is always someone who thinks you're not hot enough, and even odds are one of those someones is male, or knows a guy who is.

You've gone from a truly impossible situation to situation that feels, comparatively, like freedom. To the extant that you can forget you are female, you're almost like two people who just love one another, value one another, are buddies. But, of course, the fact that you are female is not inconsequential to your partner -- so it will come up, and you won't be able to ignore it, and inevitably you will be asked why you are always so angry.

And if you are me, you won't have an answer, at least not one that will make sense now, without your explaining, first, about being eight and twelve and nineteen, about just wanting to wear a swimsuit or walk down the street or go to a job interview or on a business trip without first trying on eight outfits and shaving your legs three times. About being tired of apologizing for being attractive, for not being attractive; about feeling like twenty-three is an unreasonable expiration date for a person; about wishing you'd never heard of a Brazilian wax or a labiaplasty but living in a world in which you are expected to take for granted that those are legitimate items for one's to-do list.

About the fact that the cognitive dissonance engendered by being a body, and being compelled to agree that that body is, at best, a thing to be apologized for, the subject of self-deprecading jokes, and at worst, a thing to be held up for ridicule and violence, is an enormous fucking drag, and when it comes down to it, even on days when you feel kind of okay about yourself, it's rare that you wouldn't jump at the chance to just be a guy. Given how "guy" can pretty much always sub in person "person", and "women" -- or worse, "female", that reified categorical/imperative that loves to masquerade as a noun -- never can.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

child, development

In no particular order, lessons learned from our first unit in Pediatrics:

1. As much as the mama-nurses who make up my circle love to give examples of how our Real Live Kids are developing, being a mom doesn't necessarily make learning peds easier. It does tend to send one off on a greater number of tangents, to wit:

Why isn't my kid saying 2 to 3 words and responding to "no" by age 12 months, and will he ever, given his parentage (his little orange head looks not unlike my own when deliberately turning away from efforts at redirection)? ... Is it because, instead, he is throwing his energy into staging temper tantrums so sensational that I can't ever decide whether to laugh out loud or join him on the floor? .... Oh my God, ancephaly; I need to go plant kisses on my son's forehead-enclosed brain right now! .... Unless he's dissolved it by digging out and dousing himself with the hidden-but-not-locked-up toilet bowl cleaner....

2. I don't actually enjoy learning new things. Our excellent classmates staged a knitting workshop immediately following the carnage of yesterday's peds exam, but given that I had spent an appreciable portion of the week studying for a test on which, I suspect, I will soon be receiving a stunningly mediocre grade, I was less than open to the prospect of additional repeat failures. After literally two efforts to cast on, I was ready to go pick up Mac, so we could curl up together like bugs on the floor, butts up, faces buried, in an effort to dig our way out of an inelegant and disagreeable world.

It is discouraging to me, the way in which the emotional and spiritual growth I claim to make tends to be predicated on my Doing Better Next Time. When I don't, I tend to LOLCATZ my way right back to the same sullen, defensive place I had really believed I'd crawled out of. Disappointing.

3. But what can you do? From one perspective, it seems apparent to me that nursing school was a mistake. I'm not good at this, and given the choice to believe that I am good at nothing or that I happened to make an unfortunate mis-step, even I don't love sulking enough to go for the former. A lot of the goals I had built around being a nurse are probably unrealistic: my grades aren't going to be good enough to obtain them, and I don't have much of a reason to suspect that I'll be an exceptionally good nurse, though I do believe that I'll be competent.

From another: this is where I am. I like nursing. My only negative feelings about it center around the fact that I want to excel and seem to have picked a field in which I can't.

But I don't know that excellence, in and of itself, is as satisfying as I believe it is when I am fetishizing it: if it were, we probably wouldn't need to write so many biographies celebrating those who pursue and attain it.

I can't choose to be better, or smarter than I am, and I no longer have the option of avoiding the knowledge that I am neither as good nor as smart as I believed I would be. Currently, my choice is: do I want to react like a small child because I disappoint myself, or do I want to focus on the fact that, apart from my own limitations and the shitty feelings they engender, my circumstances are mostly pretty enviable?

No one necessarily wants to read a story about someone who fails, and learns to live with failure; but those stories exist. And I suspect that, told well, they can be interesting and valuable. Given the switch I have made from dealing with edited, imaginary stories to the inelegant stories that comprise actual lives, it's probably for the best that I learn to appreciate that value.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

B's get Degrees

Truth bomb: I don't become more positive by reflecting on my seemingly inevitable trend towards negativity and kvetchery.

This is a bizarre paradox of therapy, for example: to be able to stop hurting myself over the things that make me angry, I had to feel like I had permission to be angry about them. Paying someone handsomely to listen to me recount the ways in which the world was effing my ess up, and had been since roughly the mid-eighties, has allowed me to feel validated enough that I can, occasionally, get over myself and focus on something other than my weight, my GPA, the status of my resume, and/or the response of those around me to any or all of the above.

I still bitch when I get a B, but since, no joke, the fourteen year old iteration of myself had to be reassured that said getting-of-Bs didn't constitute grounds for suicide, my feeling is that my therapist deserves the large amounts of money I've directed her way since moving to New York. (Perhaps you were under the impression that resolving problems that are actually non-issues could be done expediently; if so, I'd hazard a guess that you are not now and have never been "too fat to sit down".)

Anyway, I much preferred the identity I established about midway through high school, when I decided that grades were stupid and flung myself into the business of learning the things that interested me (and, less admirably, ignoring the things that didn't).

The approach was only partly right. To maintain my sense of self, I was sometimes (often) pretty overzealous and obnoxious in rejecting Things I Don't Care About. I was also fairly seriously mentally ill at that point -- possibly, though not certainly, more so than your average sixteen year old -- but if I missed a few opportunities because I was just too busy to turn in my chemistry homework on time, I needed, very much, to believe that grades did not matter, that learning was what mattered to me and that my sense of identity did not live or die according to my class standing.

And, for what was a pretty glorious half-decade, considering how sick I was in other respects, I basically did believe that, for better or for worse.

This needs to happen now, because my first Peds midterm is in less than a week, I still have a hundred-fifty pages left to read, and everyone around me is starting to unravel and stress.

I don't want another B+, because, since college, I've slid into a new, different identity in which nothing but perfect will do. But the thing about dealing in absolutes is that you either have to seek out some sort of external, "objective" measure of what constitutes perfect, or you have embrace the kind of myopia required to not only privilege your own standards and expectations, but to assert that these standards are absolute.

I'm not reading the rest of these chapters, or getting up at 4 to do it, because I want an A. Not really. Or, if I do, the part of me that wants that is the part I care about least -- the same part that wants to weigh 100 pounds forever, the part that would rather do what it's told than take responsibility for who I am, and value that person.

The A or B I get in Peds actually will not affect my nursing practice, and if I am studying in order to get an A, one might argue, I'm going into my nursing practice with a philosophy of care that is dominated by my need to feel good about my performance. This is poison.

I need to know about how to care for kids, so I'm going to study as much as I can in order to do that. If I do that, and don't do well -- well, with all due respect to SUNY Downstate and their thoughtful pedagogues (and if you know me, you know I almost never say this), the problem may not be with me this time.