Saturday, December 7, 2013

OCD and the Girl at Starbucks

The woman in line in front of me at Starbucks was intriguing, though it wasn’t in a pleasant way. She was stocky, with blond hair and a square, pockmarked face. She could have been 30. She could have been 50. She had an air of sanctimony, a knowledge that she was so much smarter than everybody else. What I found interesting, and a bit distressing, is that she seemed to lean in too close to the barista behind the counter. It seemed too intimate. Strangely, it felt as if she was invading my space, even though I was about five feet behind her. Then she practically threw her refill cup at the girl, and I thought, “How rude.”

After the kid (’cause I am of an age where I refer to people in their 20s as kids) came back with her coffee and rang her up, I noticed two things one right after another. First, the barista was either shaking something in her hand or had put it up to her mouth. Then the woman said, “Oh you’re the one who—“ I didn’t hear the last part. But it made the kid behind he counter very nervous. I looked at her and realized that this kid couldn’t stop fidgeting, couldn’t stop moving. She gave a nervous laugh and said to the woman, a little too loudly, “I’m sorry, I have a problem.”

I wanted to slap the customer.

When I was in college, my mother told me she thought I had Turrets. I was sitting on the couch, reading a book, undoubtedly fidgeting, and undoubtedly making some sort of noise coming from deep in my throat.

I looked at her. “No, mom, I just annoy you.”

It very well could be that I have some mild form of Turrets. Or some sort of OCD. I have quirks. If I touch something with one hand, often I have to also touch it with the other. This applies a lot to air. If I happen to exhale onto one hand or arm, then I have to blow on the other. Just to make it equal.

I believe in equality.

I no longer have problems walking down the street. I can’t actually remember what I did, but it had to do with rhythm. If I got out of rhythm, I would have to shuffle back in to the timing. I’m sure at times I looked totally spastic.

And I do have vocal quirks. But is that because of OCD? Or is it because of chronic sinusitis and asthma? I somehow doubt I would have to clear my throat so much if there wasn’t anything in it. Just sayin’.

I see some of these quirks in my daughter, too. She has recognized that she wipes her face a lot with her hands, then she licks her fingers. It’s rhythmic. She doesn’t realize she’s doing it. I think her other mom pointed it out to her, though, this summer in Florida. She came home with some lotion that my ex had given her to put on her face, which then stopped her from licking her hands. She begged me for more lotion. This is something she wanted to get control of.

Personally, I don’t care. She’s beautiful and funny and smart. And who the hell doesn’t have quirks?

I realize that this could be a problem if you let those quirks stop you, if not blowing on your right hand after you’ve accidentally exhaled onto your left makes you feel off kilter, and all you can think about is that the world won’t be right until you blow on your right hand. Then, of course, you do and you realize you blew too hard, so you have to even it up.

You can see how this can stop people for hours.

Somehow, as I’ve gotten older, I have been able to put mind over matter. Or mind over mind. Or mind over neurosis. My friend Jenny went with me to the grocery store this past Rosh Hashana. She is one of the few people I have confided to that I need to go out the same door I came in. Not always, but in some buildings or houses – hers being one of them. On the way home, as we rounded the bend to her house, she noted that I not only had gone out of the parking lot a different way from which I had entered, but I had also taken a different route back to her house. She was impressed. I laughed and let her in on the fact that as I made the right in the parking lot instead of a left, I realized what I had done and dismissed it.

Honor thy OCD. Then push it the fuck out of the way.

As the girl at Starbucks waited on me, I realized that she was, indeed, unable to be still. She kinda looked like she was bucking and weaving in a boxing match. She took my name, though, and put in my order. She could have OCD. She could be in drug recovery and having methadone jitters. She also had a really great smile and she made me smile with her cheerful attitude. Her body radiated energy – barely harnessed energy that was bursting to get out.

As I was waiting for my drink, the rude lady was sitting at the counter, saying something to the other barista’s about being blunt. She had no nuance. No sense that anyone would need nuance. And she was proud of herself.

The fidgety barista was busy at the other end of the counter, smiling cheerfully. Perhaps I was projecting, but I could feel her hurt. I could feel the sting this woman had inflicted upon her. I knew how brave she was being.

So, I went to my car, and pulled out my notebook and a pencil.

“Please know that you never have to apologize. You are interesting and energetic and that customer was way out of line. You’re not the one with the problem, she is. She’s RUDE.”

As I walked back in, the kid had just finished with another customer and walked into the back room. I waited for her, and when she came out I hailed her and gave her the note, telling her that I was behind the woman who was rude to her and I thought she needed to hear another perspective. She read the note as I stood there awkwardly (I had thought I could hand it to her while she was working and she would read it in private). She then offered her hand and said, “Thank you. I’m Ashley.” I’m Carrie, I answered as I shook her hand. “Wow, Carrie. You just made my day.”

We live in a world with so many expectations, so many “norms” that people are supposed to live up to. I find these norms boring, homogenized. The interesting parts can be found in the quirks. And I firmly believe that the measure of who we are is in how we treat people. I don’t care if Ashley was twisting her left arm around her right cheek to scratch her nose and blink her eyes five times – she was a lot kinder than the customer at the counter will ever be.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Training Bras - Train us for what, exactly?

A few weeks ago, as we were going to bed, my daughters asked me if they should get training bras. They said that their friend pointed out that you can see the outline of their breasts through their shirts, and that they needed to wear a bra. I asked them what they thought of that. They said it made them feel self-conscious.

And so it starts.

I won’t pretend that this exchange didn’t make me angry. I wanted to bat the little bugger who told them that, to ask her what it was she found so objectionable about the budding breasts of a couple of 10-year-olds. Of course, I couldn’t do that, so I asked my 10-year-olds what they thought she found so objectionable.

They didn’t know. Then, suddenly sensing a didactic moment coming on, they tried to slough it off.

“Mom,” said Delaney, “It’s not a big deal.”

Delaney needs to get better at warding off didactic mom moments.

“Y...eah it is,” I drawled, eliciting eye rolls from my children, who wanted nothing more than to cuddle me before they fell asleep.

These are the moments that I wish I was more subtle. The moments when I wish I had learned the art of communicating in a sly and underhanded way – you know, like women are supposed to do. I have always communicated straight on. Like a man. Which is why I scare people. Including, apparently, my daughters.

So, lacking subtlety, I reached for the sledge hammer.

“When you grow breasts, it means you’re starting puberty. And there’s something about girls starting puberty, and coming into their own sexuality, that scares people. And so we try to tell girls that they should be ashamed of themselves. That they should put on a bra or lose weight or not stand out too much.”

OK, I don’t know if I said it as well as that. I’m a much better writer after the fact than I am a speaker in the moment. But I did use the word sexuality. Which did make them cover their faces under their blankets. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that.

But I went on.

“If you want training bras, I would be happy to buy them. But I don’t think you need a bra until your breasts are big enough to need to be held in place. When it hurts when you run, you know you need a bra. When they get big enough that you know you can eventually do damage to your breasts or your back and that you need support, you know you need a bra. You don’t need a bra because someone can see the outline of your buds and is uncomfortable with that.

“You are not responsible for anybody else’s comfort level with your body.”

At this point, Delaney started talking about books.

Here’s the thing, I have very large breasts, and I have always hated them. I’ve analyzed this a lot over the years. Part of it is that I grew up in the Twiggy era, when the model of beauty was an negative A cup. Part of it is that I found bras to be the most uncomfortable piece of clothing ever invented. I wanted to just put on my t-shirt and go. But most of it, I think, was the reaction of people around me to the changes in my body. At 10 or 11, I still wanted to run around in fields and play football with the boys at recess. Suddenly, these THINGS started growing and I had to wear this strangling apparatus, while simultaneously coming under tremendous pressure to rein myself in. No more playing in fields. No more wearing boys t-shirts. I was too blunt. I had to be more subtle. Like a girl.

Of course, right after this exchange with my daughters, I felt torn. In trying to advocate for them being comfortable with their own bodies, I think I may have made them feel like they can’t wear a bra or mom will get mad. I don’t want them to have to suffer the comments and stares of other kids because they think I might think less of them for conforming. So I bought them bras. And now they hate to wear them because they’re uncomfortable. And I’ve decided at this point to let them sort through that without my didacticism or my own experience.

Monday, March 25, 2013

High Court to Hear Two Historic Gay Marriage Cases

Tuesday, March 26 and Wednesday, March 27 are the days that gay marriage supporters have been waiting for, when the Supreme Court takes on the issue of marriage equality in two separate cases. Read the full story on my other blog, Kaufman On America.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Snow: The endless quest

One of the fondest memories I have is of sledding for the first time with my father, at the age of three or four, on some hill in St. Louis which was probably very small, but which seemed enormous and scary to me. Sitting in my dad’s lap, dressed well against the cold, we rushed down the mountain again and again.

And then we left. Headed west to the desert where the snow falls an inch or two for a few hours every 13 or 14 years. I was not to see snow until I started skiing, as a 12-year-old, heading down real mountains. But by then the fear and caution that accompanies adolescence had crept in. I didn’t want to fall, didn’t want to make a fool of myself. When I skied with my dad (who was also learning himself, in his mid-30s), the abandonment of fun was replaced by a desire to make him proud of me, which hindered my concentration, which made me fall. It was exhilaration mixed with frustration.

My encounter with snow had changed. It had become a skill I needed to master rather than a letting go to the rush.

My quest for snow and cold swept me further east, first to Boston to go to school, then Chicago. I remember one lovely night when I ended up walking from Boston Harbor to Brookline and my rent-controlled apartment in a slowly falling shake of a storm that would yield about 10 inches over a long period of time, the city getting darker and strangely lighter at the same time. I walked along Commonwealth Avenue, pretending I was in a past century, where gas lamps illuminated the glow of the snow and a guy with mutton chops and a top hat would come whisking by me at any minute. What he might say to me, this hunched over dyke in jeans and Gore-Tex, never occurred to me. In my fantasy, I was just another bloke like him.

Chicago has been a disappointment in the snow department. I remember some big storms, and it seemed to snow regularly in the years I first moved here. But I might have been too busy to notice. Plus, it’s flat. Going skiing is an effort. My partner was unequivocally not interested, and I couldn’t justify the expense or step out and go alone. But damn, those discount flyers for Jackson Hole from 15 years ago still sit on my bookcase.

I took my kids sledding when they were three. They hated it. Dixon humored me and kept going down because I was excited. Delaney, who has had issues with motion since she was a baby, simply refused. And now, when it does snow, my hours are filled with shoveling and salting and making sure everything is taken care of and everyone is dressed properly and (if we can convince Delaney) the sleds are packed as we head to the little hill by our house. I am now the caretaker, trying to give my kids the opportunities for exhilaration that I missed in the desert. Opportunities that they seem highly ambivalent about.

In the south suburbs of Chicago, we don’t get as much snow as those people north and west of us. Last year it barely snowed at all. Our sleds stayed put. This year December went by and I’m not even sure it got down to freezing. January had a few cold days, punctuated with even more in the 40s. We tried, mid-February, to eke out a sledding run from the two inches of snow we had gotten. The grass on the hill shown through, like a man in white face paint badly in need of a shave. It was pathetic. But it was all we had.

Finally, a few storms in a row at the end of February piled the snow up a few inches. And then last week, on March 5, eight inches fell and I was outside for most of it. My 10-year-old and I made a snowman, and she taught me how to roll the snow rather than pack it. But our fun was punctuated by me trying to snow blow, which I had to do twice as the snow was coming down that hard. It was pleasure and work, though the work in the snow was pretty pleasureful. Our snowman had a carrot nose and a cantaloupe mouth. Dixon got two of her best buttons for eyes. I found an old favorite hat. And we took some knit gloves that we don’t use anymore and fitted them on stick arms. We spent hours outside, romping in the snow, looking for the proper sticks, rolling, shoveling. Laughing. Then we took a picture.

Because in the end, posterity is all we have.

A week later it is 47 degrees and raining. I just picked up my hat, unhanded the gloves from the sticks, and washed the buttons and put them back in the sewing box. There are clumps of snow dotting my yard, like frozen dumplings on a bed of kale. Spring is here, or coming – either way, there is no more snow for this year. I find my self counting down the months till December, when I can hope again for a snowstorm and cold weather, proof that global warming hasn’t taken hold. My entire life has been a dream of snow. Why I never moved to Denver or Vermont I’ll never know. Perhaps I’ve been trying to recreate that memory of flying down the hill with my dad. Perhaps I will never fully succeed. But dammit, I’m looking at those Jackson Hole flyers and wondering if they will still be good in a year.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Are homophobes really assholes?

Hey, GayMom followers. I've got a new blog where I'm posting stuff that's not so personal and more political in nature. Today's post straddles both - looking at what homophobia really is and why we shouldn't call homophobes assholes.

Go take a look at KaufmanOnAmerica. And subscribe to that if you're interested in reading more.


Friday, August 17, 2012

Why Uma Left

Well, it finally happened. A clear-eyed understanding of their pain and anger and confusion about their other mother moving to Florida. And it was so simple and straight forward. I guess memorable moments aren’t always dramatic.
It started with a post on Facebook about an anguished father, raising money so he can fight for custody of his son.
The girls were looking over my shoulder and made me click on the link. It’s a sad story. He was the primary caregiver for six years. Then he and his partner broke up, and the ex moved across country with his son. The ex is the biological parent. Actually, that part’s not clear. What’s clear is that the man raising money is not the biological parent. He was just the stay at home dad for six years.
Part of the argument in the fundraising plea is that studies have shown children are better off with two parents raising them. When we got to that part, I thought, “Uh-oh.”
But I didn’t say that. Instead I took the political route.
“This is why gay marriage needs to be legal all over the country. Gay people can’t adopt in every state, and so sometimes when they split up one parent has no rights to see his child. If they were straight, then legally both parents – whether biological or adopted – would have a right to see their children.”
They nodded. Silently. They didn’t want to go down the political route.
“And I think it’s horribly unfair when gay people hide behind the lack of law in divorce cases.”
They nodded again. I relented and took a more direct route.
“By the way, that is not what happened with Uma.”
“But she moved to Florida,” Dixon said.
“Yes, but I would be perfectly happy if—“
“You want to get rid of us,” Delaney said, clearly joking, and slapping her hand over my mouth.
“No,” I tried to stammer out, “I would be happy if...”
“You want to get rid of us,” she said again, laughing.
I garbled out another answer, then playfully tried to bite her hand.
This comes from another discussion we had a few days earlier. I have spent the summer at home and have consequently spent almost every waking moment with the girls. Since we are most definitely nocturnal beings, their hours have gotten later and later, especially since Olympic coverage ended at 11 most nights. They told me the other day that I’ve been way too short tempered for the last week or two. I answered that they’re lucky my temper held out this long and that I needed a break. So Delaney took it to its most likely extreme.
“Seriously,” I said when she took her hand away from my mouth. “I would be very happy if Uma lived near here and picked you up on Sunday and had you till Tuesday night or you would come home on Wednesday after school. I would be happy to have you see her every other weekend like you used to.”
I got up to empty the dishwasher. This seemed like a good time in the scene to put some space in the blocking.
“If you and Uma had stayed together,” said Dixon, “would we all have moved to Florida?”
“If Uma and I had stayed together, we would all probably still be living here.”
“But she moved to Florida for a reason.”
“But if we were together, staying with us would have trumped the reason she moved to Florida.”
“Then why did she move?”
I paused, put away some dishes.
“She moved to Florida because being near the ocean is healing to her. She’s happy there. For some reason she could not be happy living near us. And she was not happy living with Coco (her grown daughter who lives an hour and a half away). When she told me she was moving, I wasn’t happy about it, but I knew it was the best thing for her.”
I looked at them.
“The problem is, it’s not the best thing for you.”
There was a silence. Delaney was standing at the table browsing on my computer. Dixon’s crumpled face showed the computations going on in her head.
“Why is the beach more important to Uma than her children?”
There comes a time when raising kids when you can’t fix the hurt. You just have to let them feel it. And you have to affirm the pain, affirm the validity of their feelings, without taking them away.
The reality is that their Uma loves them very much, misses them horribly, and is tortured by the idea of having a half life with them. It’s much easier for her to be away than to only see them – and me – part of the time. She stuck close longer than I thought she would. And the other day she asked if I could look for employment in the south, so she would be within a day’s drive. But if she’s going to be tortured without us, she needs to be a in a place that makes her feel alive and whole.
I understand that. And I understand that for my children, it’s wholly unfair.
We stood in the kitchen for a while in silence, me putting dishes away, Dixon staring somewhere in the vicinity of the floor, till Delaney broke the spell.
“Can I take a cooking class?”
Dixon and I laughed, and I teased her about the non-sequitur.
 “Hey, I don’t hit things head on,” she said. “I go around them.”
I’m still pondering how to handle that one.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Brave: Pixar’s Cowardly Movie

According to my American Heritage Dictionary, “Brave” is defined as:
  • Possessing or displaying courage; valiant
  • Making a fine display; impressive or showy
  • Excellent; great
  • To undergo or face courageously

I have told my daughters many times that bravery is being afraid, but doing it anyway.

Here’s what “Brave” isn’t: being a petulant teenager who almost ends your mother’s life because you’re being forced to do something you don’t want to do.

Granted, the stakes for Merida – the hero in Disney Pixar’s new movie “Brave” – are higher than being allowed to stay out after curfew or wear torn jeans. Merida’s mother, the queen, sticks steadfastly to social norms and traditions. From the beginning of the film, she is constantly telling her daughter what “ladies” don’t do., presenting herself as the very model of “ladylike” behavior.

Merida is portrayed as an extraordinarily gifted tomboy who can scale rocks as tall as buildings in a single bound, shoot arrows with pinpoint accuracy while riding a horse at high speed, and fight like...well...a boy – at least how boys are defined in her mother’s world.

Which is why it’s scary and appalling when the queen tells Merida she must marry – and presents her with suitors who don’t begin to match Merida’s fearlessness and skill.

I, too, would balk at having to put myself away to please and be subservient to a husband. I, too, would fight what Merida labels as “becoming my mother” – or, rather, adhering to limited views of what women are or can be embodied in my mother’s generation.

In fact, I did balk at that. Thirty years ago. And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with the movie “Brave.” It makes epic promises about Pixar’s first female heroine who must save her country, evoking thoughts of “Braveheart” or “Star Wars” or even “Norma Rae.” What we got instead was “Mary Tyler Moore” – a story that would have been groundbreaking  at a time when women couldn’t open checking accounts on their own, that now seems backwards in its view of women and the roadblocks women and girls must overcome.

The smallness of the story is what bothers me. Luke Skywalker is a boy from a remote, tiny village who doesn’t realize the power he has, but who finds himself fighting to save the universe. Erin Brockovich is a woman who doesn’t realize how smart she is, but ends up almost single-handedly triumphing over corporate cruelty and greed. Gandhi is a man who finds power in stillness, and ends up taking down a nation.

Merida is a girl who is trying to get her mother to be less uptight.

What makes it more egregious is that Merida’s “bravery” is really displayed as petulance. And her mother – who has dedicated her life to constricting herself by what she is supposed to do – comes off as wise.

Because, you know, only petulant, self-centered girls forge their own paths in life.

I can’t help thinking that if the main character in “Brave” had been a boy, his prodigious skill would have been enlisted to save his country. Or he would have struck out on his own, leaving expectations behind, stumbling into and foiling a plot that would have destroyed the kingdom. He would have been asked to shoulder responsibilities beyond his years – to be afraid, but to do it anyway.

For Merida, the roadblocks she has to overcome are of her own making, and they’re made with a rashness that plays into both the stereotype of an hysterical woman and the stereotype of a fiery redhead. The choices she makes are not brave, they are stupid, and the movie is really about how she scrambles to dig herself out of the holes she’s dug.

Because, you know, that’s really all that women can do.

At its heart, “Brave” is a relationship movie, a chick flick. As she tries to solve the problem she’s created, Merida comes to see that her mother really does love her. As her mother watches (and helps) Merida try to solve the problem, she comes to a better understanding of how powerful and fierce her daughter is. And somehow she comes to appreciate it, without seeing that fierceness as a repudiation of her own choices.

I suppose that’s an OK message for middle class America, where so many women still are tempted to mold their daughters based on the limitations of society. But it leaves out so many mothers and daughters for whom this is not the norm.

Wouldn’t it have been better to write a film script without those limitations, to show how truly powerful women and girls can be? Wouldn’t that have been a great message for mothers and daughters to take out of the theatre?

This movie is billed as a movie about bravery. It’s billed as a movie about going out into the world. It’s billed as a movie about saving the kingdom. And I’m afraid that for so many little girls – and misguided mothers who want to limit them – the smallness of scope of “Brave” will only send the message that women really shouldn’t try saving the kingdom – or even running it.

Four years ago, our country almost had a female presidential candidate. It’s very likely we’ll have a female president within the decade. And when we elect her, I’m not going to care how she got along with her mother, or whether she’d be willing to marry a suitor from another kingdom. I’m going to care about whether or not she can save the world – or at least run one country.

Where’s the movie that will inspire little girls to want that?

I put out a call to my Facebook friends to come up with titles of epic movies in which the hero saves something larger than him or herself. What interested me was the range of answers to this question. Following, in the order I received them, are the answers that were posted (some by the same people):



The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Pan's Laberinth


The Alien Trilogy

A Civil Action

The Marathon Man

The Verdict

12 Angry Men

Erin Brockovich

The Accused


Lorenzo's Oil


Superman. Spiderman.

All the President's Men


‎Two very different Tom Hanks films: Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan

Three Days of the Condor

The Insider

Blue Velvet

Gideon's Trumpet — a made for TV movie with Henry Fonda. Clarence Gideon is one of the most unlikely heroes in American history.

Schindler's List

Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae

Star Wars

The Crucible and To Kill a Mockingbird

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Wizard of Oz

Lawrence of Arabia. Bridge on the River Kwai.

First Knight. A Knight's Tale. The Patriot. The Expendables.

The Shawshank Redemption

We Were Soldiers Once. Robin Hood (any version). Excalibur. Master and Commander. Peter Pan. Count of Monte Cristo.

Finding Nemo

The Unforgiven

The Last Starfighter

The Dirty Dozen

The Great Escape

Hunger Games