Sunday, August 26, 2012

Little Miracle

"Bear - I need you to come with the car and pick me up - I found a kitten," was the first time I knew about Kuji. Max, my husband had taken a walk in a park nearby our house and noticed something on the side of the road. It was a small fur ball, so small it was the size of the pine cones that it was next too. "I thought it was dead and said a prayer over it and then the kitten put up it's little head and started to squeak - please bring something to put it in," he asked. I found a shoe box, put a clean towel in it and a piece of fabric as a makeshift crib. A helpless feline infant was abandoned and of course we would help - even though it would have been easy to walk on by as one person did while we were getting her into the car - but that was not God's plan. "I've never seen an animal this small," Daniel, our son, remarked as we drove the short distance home. We got her inside and tried to see if she would take water with a small eye dropper. She was so new to the world that her eyes were not quite open, but her vocal cords worked great and she was squeaking up a storm. Since she was so small, I checked the internet for guidance. She was at best 10 days to two weeks old which is a tough age when most kittens do better with their birth mothers for at least six weeks. The kids kept asking what was going to happen and if we were going to keep her. "I really just want to take it a week at at time," I said. "Kittens this age need their mothers and something must have happened or maybe she was just a abandoned but whatever might have happened before, God trusts us to take care of her now." We assumed she was a girl but it's pretty hairy down there - so was hard to tell.

Max donned some surgical gloves and tried to get her to drink a bit.   We called an animal hospital to see if they would take her but found out that they don't take kittens that age that have been abandoned but I got some good advice on what to get her.   Me and the kids went to Pet Superstore to get kitten formula, bottles and some special kitten wipes.  The kids still kept asking if we would keep her and again my answer was that she was so little we had to get her to that six week point to really know for sure.   I told myself not to get too close because there was a chance she would not make it but put on a positive face for the kids.   We got home with the powdered formula and she took some of it but going from mother's milk to a bottle even for a human baby is hard  - but eventually we found our stride.  She would drink a teaspoon at a time and that seemed like a huge milestone.   Max posted photos of her on his Facebook page but I didn't.  I was too afraid something bad would happen to take that chance.  

I got up in the middle of the night to check on her and see if she would take some formula.  I thought my days of late night feedings were over but this little one needed the help.  There I was in the bathroom holding her tight and hoping she would take a few drops of formula.  I wondered how long she had been out there and if she would have died if we hadn't found her on the pavement on a scorching Atlanta day.   Max wanted to call her Kuji which means "Nine Powers" and it seemed fitting - she had the power to get the side of the road.  I thought about how her guardians angels had guided Max to find her and bring her here as I sat in the stillness of the night with the white noise of the AC and the warmth of her little body up against mine.  "Don't get too close, there is a chance she won't make it," my brain kept telling me, but in my heart I was already falling in love.   My kids were getting older and didn't need me as much and this little being needed as much help as she could get.  I felt needed.   That Monday, Amber had a cold so she was able to stay home with Kuji but she was not taking formula and Amber was getting stressed.   Max came home after 4:00 p.m.  and got her to pee which really made me smile as I listened to her progress at work - she's had a number one now just a number 2 and I'd be totally happy.  Ah, parenthood - you worry about gross stuff like that.  I got home and we went to the pet store to get the cans of formula which she might like better.   It worked, she drank it and then would retire to her shoe box with a Body Comfort warm pad and fresh towels.   She's squeak in the middle of the night when she wanted to be fed and it was like taking care of an infant all over again. 

It was three days after we got her that I mentioned Kuji on Facebook - many of our friends knew about her through Max's Facebook postings, encouraging us and giving advice which we appreciated.   That Tuesday, she drained her morning bottle and then promptly peed on me.   Oddly enough that made me happy since it meant that her body was functioning well.  Her eyes were now fully wide open and it was like she couldn't wait to see everything she could in her little world.  I felt like she was starting to get healthier on her way to being a permanent member of our household.  She was crawling out of the shoe box and needed the tall sides of a laundry basket to keep her out of harm's way.  Our two other adults cats, Sonny and Vanilly didn't know what to make of her - they just kept their distance.  They never hissed or growled.  Vanilly would try to touch her and get about an inch away and then would back away when she squeaked.   Sonny would get up on the couch and look down at her crib and keep an eye on her.   She went to the vet's five days after we got her.  She was robust and all over the place.  The vet was impressed at how well she was doing and give us a vaccination schedule since they really couldn't to much for her until she was six weeks old.   She got a clean bill of health and now I cast my concerns aside could really love on that little girl because it seemed like she would be with us for a while.  

At the end of the work week, I had promised to do a teen retreat with my Unitarian Church and spend the night at the retreat.  I hated being away from the family and little Kuji but she was doing so well and the rest of the family needed to bond with her too.   Many of the people at the retreat asked me how she was doing and I had the photos that Max was posting on Facebook to show them.   I just felt so happy that she was doing well and that she was our little miracle.   I sat there thinking of her even as the teens at the workshop tried to figure their own spiritual path - some believing, some not and some complaining that we were talking about God too much at church because they'd rather just come here to hang out with their friends.   You gotta love Unitarians - talking about the importance of church and raging against the machine at the same time.   I left the retreat that Saturday afternoon happy to be back at home with the family and the animals that I loved.   I held Kuji against my chest and fed her - Max told me that she really responded to me more than anyone else in the family and that made me smile.  I loved the feeling of her little body against my chest.  She was squeaking, and walking around and telling everyone about it.   I let her fall asleep on Amber's chest and it felt like after a little less than a week we were finding our equilibrium with the new kitten.   I let her sleep in the laundry basket with Amber and Daniel who were camped out on beds in the living room after her midnight feeding.   When she fussed in the middle of the night - they brought her to me and I was happy to fed her and kiss her - everything seemed very normal. 

The next morning I went in to see how she was doing.  She opened her eyes and looked very contented.   She was purring now and it just seemed like things were progressing as they needed to.  But a few hours later,  I noticed that her head seemed misshapen - I touched the top and it was soft.  Worse, she was not talking or squeaking - she was just very quiet but active.   Her walking had gone from very sprite-like to sideways and she was falling down.    Something had happened and I asked if anyone had dropped her on her head, but no one had.    She wanted to sleep more and I would check on her while I was finishing my blog - ironically - we had gotten her a week before just as I had finished another blog.    I could feel in the pit of my stomach that this was bad, but how could she have developed this in less than 12 hours?   Later that day, an abscess formed on her head and began to drain.  I put warm washcloths on it to help and antibiotic cream but she started to get weaker.   She would still take a bottle which was encouraging but her walking was very unsteady.  Worse, my work week was filled with Board Meetings, rehearsals and an open house that I had to be at.   That Monday before work, I got her to take about a tablespoon of formula and she peed and was walking - albeit unsteadily.   I got her cleaned up put in fresh linens, made sure her heating pads were warm and talked to her sweetly with tears running down my face before I went to work.   Daniel would see how sad I was and told me she would be okay as he hugged me out the door.  I would call Amber in the afternoon after she got home from school to find out how she was doing and Max would give me an update when he got home.  The guilt of not being there was huge - but I was in a new job and taking time off for a sick kitten didn't seem like a good reason to miss work.   She was not much better or taking much formula that night and the next day she was getting weaker.   It all seemed so harsh - I mean we found her for a reason.  We were supposed to have her for a long time - not just a week - why was God doing this to us?   So I would try to feed her multiple times from 5:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. when I left hoping she would rally.   Max was posting updates on Facebook and the response was always so kind - so many people were praying and pulling for her.  
I had to work late for a Board meeting that Tuesday and got home around 8:30 p.m.   I held her tight and she'd take a little formula - again perking up when she heard or saw me.  That night Max and I were holding her and crying.  I tried to make sense of it all - she was so healthy just a few days ago and now it was clear that it was only a matter of time.   I asked him if her being with us was just a transit to another life and that she needed to experience unconditional love in this life - even if it was for a short time so that she could take that into her next one.   He nodded and said that had to have been it and that the real tragedy would have been if she had died on the side of the road without ever knowing how much she could be loved.   Intellectually I knew that and it should have filled me with joy to know that we had helped her but sitting there holding this little life that was ebbing away, it was hard to get my heart to heed that lesson because it was breaking in two.   We let the kids know that Kuji might not make it and that miracles might happen and she might rally but that it didn't look good.  Daniel just said that he just didn't want to think that way and she would be fine - that's my son the optimist.  We made sure he got a chance to hold her and try to feed her. 

The next morning, which was a Wednesday, I got up and Kuji was getting weaker and weaker.  I Facebooked that she was not looking good and got some very sweet responses from people who had gone through the same thing and wanted to let us know that we were doing everything we could and to be gentle with each other.   I again kissed her and put her out in the living room before I went to work so that if she did pass, the other cats would be nearby and she wouldn't be alone.  Vanilly would rub against the laundry basket and Sonny would lay on the top of the couch looking down on her and making sure she was okay.  I would go into the bathroom at work and cry so that no one would know what was wrong.  It wasn't that they would not have been sympathetic but I just didn't want the flood gates opening every time someone asked how the kitten was.   I got home that night and held her and she put her little paws up to me.   I got her to take a little more formula before the actors came over for rehearsal.   It was a small group - just Mike and Becca.  Amber brought her out and they got a chance to see our little kitten who was so weak and fragile.   Doing improv helped me - because it seemed like I had spent so much of the week crying it was nice to laugh for a change.  Vanilly kept jumping into scenes which was funny.  I think he needed the attention since we had all been so focused on the little one.  At the end of the rehearsal, Max brought Kuji down to the garage while he was painting.  Later, Mike, Becca, Max and I talked about her and that she might get better but I was not holding out much hope, she could not even lift her neck at this point.  I took her upstairs and tried to get her to take a little water which she seemed able to do - I just wanted her hydrated and maybe things might get better.   

On Thursday morning I was surprised that she was still with us.   I made sure the kids got a chance to hold her and hug her because I was not sure if she would be here when they got home.   My prayer was that she would not pass before they got home.   I got ready for work and yet another afterwork event.   I kissed her and sang "This Little Light of Mine" to her.   I made sure she was warm and clean and put her crib in the sunbeam on the couch.   Vanilly and Sonny were nearby now acting as guardians.  I left again, not sure if I would see her alive and wanting so badly to stay and wishing this had happened while I still unemployed so that I could take care of her the way I was able to take care of our cat Skittles before he died back in November.   Waiting to call Amber was so hard - and when she answered she was crying and I was crying.   Kuji was still alive but barely.   I wanted to go home but was too afraid to ask to leave and at least there were people home with her.   Max came home to the sight of both kids sobbing.   He tried to give Kuji some water and brought her up to our bedroom so she could be near him.   I had to go an open house and called before I left - he told me she was still with us and I thought that she might wait until I came home to leave.   I went to the open house which actually made me feel a little better and called around 8:00 p.m. to see how she was doing.   Max told me to come home and didn't say much else.  When I walked in the door, Amber was on her computer and things seemed normal so maybe I was still in time.  Max appeared at the top of the stairs and just shook his head.   "She's gone?" I said choking back tears that I was sure I had completely expended.  "At about 6:00 p.m., I didn't want to tell you while you were driving, but she's still upstairs if you want to see her."  I tore up the stairs and saw my little Kuji who looked she was sleeping but she was no more.   Max told me that when he told the kids she was gone, their first instinct was to hug each other.   So we sat around and cried and held her for one last time.  I then handed her to Max who had a spot in the garden picked out under a  rose bush on the other side where Skittles was buried.   Me and kids held hands and sang "This Little Light of Mine" one last time to her.    

We let our friends on Facebook know that Kuji was gone and the response blew my mind.   People who I hadn't heard from in long time expressed their condolences.   That's the thing about human nature - there is something about a helpless sick animal infant that brings out the sympathetic feelings in even the toughest person.   Max and I got loads of well wishes and it really did help to know that so many people were caught up in the Kuji story and prayed for a happy ending and now they shared our sorrow.   

I made it a point to tell the kids that even though our hearts were broken it was important that Kuji was with us for the short time that she was.   If we had known how sad this ending was when we first met her, we would still do it all over again, because you can't turn your back on helping the helpless whether they are animal or human.  The easy thing would have been to walk on by and hope that someone else would take care of it but that's not us and it never will be.   It's still so fresh and I know that time heals all wounds.  It's been a hard weekend and  we tried to do some fun things this weekend like bowling, going to the food truck park in Atlanta and river tubing just to try to keep our spirits up.    I gave away the laundry basket with some donated clothes that Kuji slept in not to forget her but just looking at it made me just too sad.  So now you know about the abandoned little kitten that might have died nameless and loveless and thought that no one cared.   But we cared, we loved and yes - we lost.  I kept thinking of that verse from the bible, Matthew 25:31- "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in ...Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me."  My prayer for her now is that she will love as deeply in the next life as she was loved in this one.   She was our little miracle with the big heart. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Negative Body Image

Now that summer is almost over and the bathing suits can go back in hiding for another year, I'm always amazed at the fact that even though I workout six times a week for an hour or more, I just can't feel comfortable wearing a bikini in public.   There was even some silly poll last year that said that women over the age of 48 should NEVER wear a bikini in public.   Really?  So Cindy Crawford should just pack it up in the sexy department in two years because she's over the hill.   The media of course plays a huge part in how women feel about themselves.   We see photoshopped images of women with perfect skin splashing around with ridiculous measurements like 36-24-34 and somehow the rest of the female population who are not supermodel mutants are supposed to compete.   For the record, maybe 1% of the US female population meets those standards and a recent story by ABC News noted that the supermodels of the 1980's like Cindy Crawford and Christie Brinkley would probably be considered plus sized models.   In the 80's models were just 8% smaller than the average women - now they are 23% less.   So as women get larger, supermodels get thinner.  It's a dangerous message that our daughters are getting about what is healthy and what is emaciated. 
I grew up in the 1960's and 70's when Twiggy was one of the biggest models in the world.  The waif look was in - short hair, big eyes and over the top skinny in large dresses.   It was an impossible body image that ushered more insecurity about your body - especially for a kid like me that was chunky in elementary and part way through Jr. High.   I used to come home from school everyday and if my mother was substitute teaching and my dad was out of town in a business trip - I would scarf down a big bowl of ice cream while no one was around.  Food and especially chocolate was my escape.   I was terribly out of shape and it showed in recess and PE.   I couldn't run worth a damn and I was always picked last when it came time for the athletic kids to pick teams.   For the record, I really hate that practice - being judged by the thinner and more buff kids and being that one person that was going to lose the game if they let me play for any amount of time.   When I was a substitute teacher in PE, I would have the kids count off and then the even numbered kids would go on one team and the odd numbered kids would go on the other team.  No one got the make anyone feel like they were not worthy to play.   The popular jock kids got really pissed at me for doing that - but I could tell the less popular kids were happy to not go through that humiliating ritual.   The great thing about Facebook is that now I can see that those super competitive jock types have gotten fat and out of shape and I'm stilling running and dancing.  So kids - life does go on after high school and irony can be your friend.  

Once I hit junior high, I started to be more obsessive about my weight.  You had a very thin Brooke Shields tell you that nothing came between her and her Calvins (which I guess meant she was not wearing any underwear - yuck!)  Now, I was not a full blown anorexic.  I didn't use laxatives or toss my cookies after each meal - but I was very, very conscious of calories - for instance a small banana is 100 calories, an oreo cookie is 52, etc.  I figured if I took in between 500 to 700 calories but exercised for an hour or more - there was no way I could gain weight and I would probably lose it.   I went to the bathroom immediately after eating dinner and I weighed myself constantly.   I had a very bony chest which looked worse after I lost weight.   In the ninth grade, I was 5'3" and just 93 pounds - I was not looking very healthy and you could see the bones popping through my shoulders.   Still, I would stand in front of the mirror and do a scathing review of my body and if I could pinch flesh anywhere - then I was just too fat.   Many people wonder how anorexic girls who look like people who just walked out of concentration camps can still think they are still fat, but your perception gets so warped that all you can see are the flaws and the bones sticking out just don't look that bad.   Finally, my older sister sat me down and told me how unhealthy I looked and it was like I could finally see how thin I really was.   I looked terrible - thin and pale.  Probably, the hardest thing about being an anorexic is realizing that you can control very few things in your life but what you put in your body and how you exercise.   For control freaks like me (I generally am more controlling about my personal body issues) giving up a rigorous physical schedule and a very controlled diet was probably one of the hardest things I ever had to do - but it saved my life.   

In college, I did relapse a bit.  I was on my own, dealing with the stress of college and having to plan my own meals and exercising.  I lost some of the weight I had gained in high school while working part-time and taking my SATs.   I got so obsessed with my weight at that point that I would donate blood just to lose a pound in a few minutes.   Now, I know that once I drank a big glass of water, the fluid that I just lost through a tube in my arm would be back as far as the scale was concerned.  That didn't matter - for that moment in time - I was a pound lighter without having to sweat it off.   After realizing that giving blood to lose weight was putting me back in harm's way, I got counseling in college and it helped me get my body image and weight back on track.  In fact, I would see another girl on my way to class that looked like a walking bag of bones and think - "Good God, that could have been me."   
So why are we so obsessed with thin women in our culture when our obesity rate has skyrocketed since the 1980's?    The bigger women become, the thinner models become.  In the 1980's the average model wore a size 6 which does not sound ridiculously petite, but now most models are between size 0 and size 4 (you're actually a heifer if you're close to a size 4) and half of all American woman are size 14 or higher.   Now, the anorexic side I get - you see impossibly thin models and you try to become one but could that impossible body image also be making us fatter?   According to one SizeUSA study, seeing ultra thin models and celebrities is pushing girls and women to binge behaviors that might actually cause weight gain and not weight loss.   While those models might be 5'10" and weight between 110 and 120 pounds, the advertisers and fashion editors are asking their graphic artists to make the skin smoother, the thighs thinner and the waists smaller so that the image you see is not even what that ultra thin woman looks like.  We're trying to live up to an image that doesn't really exist.   The use of photoshopping has even gotten some magazines in trouble - take a look at this cover with Faith Hill before and after photoshopping.   She's a beautiful woman to begin with - why make her more than she is?  But the need to take out the dark circles, thin down the already slender arms and the skin near the back was just too much and we have a Faith Hill that just doesn't exist beyond the magazine cover. 

Men are not under the same pressure to look the same uniformly.  You can have the cast of Ocean's 13 who have a wide range of looks and  most women would agree that they all are hot.  Johnny Depp could gain 20 pounds just because he wanted to and not for a part and still be hired - no so for Scarlett Johannson.  It's such a maddening double standard!  The most iconic sex symbol of all time - Marilyn Monroe at size 10 probably could not even get a reading for a movie about blonds in the 1950's because she would be considered too fat.   Ironically, back then with all the processed foods and "TV Dinners" folks were still thinner then we are right now.   For all it's sexism, body wise, women still better off in the 50's then they are now.  

One positive trend has been the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty which uses women of all sizes and complexions to sell their products to other women.  It's a refreshing piece of advertising that was started in 2004 to show women of all ages and sizes that there are many ways to be beautiful and not just the way that Victoria's Secret sees it.   I love their soaps and body wash and feel like my daughter and I can look at their ads and not flinch in comparison because like the women in these ads, we are not supermodels but we need to be proud and strong in our own skins.  

And so, while the end of summer is still just a few weeks away, will I finally put on a bikini rather than a tankini and be brave enough to walk out the door?   I've gotten over the fact that I'm not 25 anymore and those days of being super thin are over - thank God because I was never really happy that way.  I guess working at a charity that helps adults with developmental disabilities puts things in perspective.  Worrying about your looks especially when you are around folks with whom just walking a few feet takes a massive amount of effort - seems so damn shallow.  I have a body that works and does what I want it to do - that's a blessing.  Is it a perfect 10?  Hell no, but I am thankful for what I have and at 49 I think I look pretty good.    So the next time we go swimming - I'm actually going to wear a bikini.  I'll try not to feel self conscious because in the end it's more important to feel good then to look good and that realization is just marvelous.   

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Stop in the Name of Love

It's always interesting to me as woman who has worked since she was 16 years old that there are women out there who want nothing more than for a man to take care of her completely as in he makes the living and she stays at home.   This is not a knock to stay-at-home moms because I did that for two years when Amber was a toddler and I actually would look fondly on those days when I'm at frazzled at work running from one meeting to another.  I also just experienced that for six months while I was laid off and it was nice to be home when my kids got home from school.   No, I'm talking about the women who want the men in their lives to make all the decisions, who defer to him for financial issues and want to be the perfect princess  - they want to get the prince, the castle, the clothes and the jewels.  But as I've observed, the trade-off comes at a price - and if you don't maintain your own identity - it's pretty easy to get swallowed up into a domestic pit of despair that might be next to impossible to crawl out of.  

We get the fairy tale endings handed to us at an early age.  There are the Disney Princesses from the 1930's to the 1950's like Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty that literally expect a prince to ride up on a white horse and take them away from their abusive relationships and bring them to a place of greater glory.   Hey, it's a great fantasy - who at some point in their lives hasn't wanted to say - "Screw this, just take me away to a far off land and treat me like a queen where I don't have to lift a finger and everyone is waiting on me hand and foot for a change!"   But that sort of life leads to inertia - that stagnant thinking can really stunt your growth as a human.  When the prince can no longer take care of you, you're left out in the cold without a way to take care of yourself.  I see teen girls on TV talking about how they are going to find a man to take care of them as in - he brings home the money and I stay home and don't do much - just like the ladies on reality TV.  They see the "real" housewives relishing their roles as backstabbing harpies while living in luxurious homes.  But at the end of the day, those women just aren't happy and they are striking out because they are so miserable.  The whole of idea of not having to work another day in your life is such an unhealthy and unrealistic expectation in a marriage that it's difficult for the relationship to be equal.  I remember being around the society ladies in Miami when I was just starting out in fundraising 20 years ago.   They had the clothes from Bal Harbor, the nice big house, the cars, the awesome vacations and yet you could sense how unhappy there were.   Their only solace was talking about how they wanted to decorate a room for the fifth time in 10 years and what the latest fashions were - they were just really, really dull to be around.  I would leave those meetings thinking "Good God, I've only been around those women for 30 minutes and I want to go out and bang my secretary and I don't even have a secretary - I can imagine how their spouses feel!"   If we had a meeting at their homes and the husbands would arrive, they were dismissive - as if - well isn't it cute that we were having a committee meeting but it was not real business.  Of course, there were happy unions of people with means, but you got the feeling that those women made sure they had a solid footing in the relationship to begin with. 

The reality is that mutual respect and love are the cornerstones of every good marriage - and equality is a  must.  I've seen too many women who like Cinderella or Snow White believe that the right man will fix all their problems and help them escape a bad situation.   Unfortunately, those Prince Abuse-a-lots have a pretty good radar for picking up on women like that.  They probably saw that same dynamic with their own parents.  Dad taught them how to treat women badly and so the cycle continues.    We have to teach our daughters what good relationships are from the very beginning because once they get into high school and college - it's too late.   In my case, my father was very supportive and loving and yet I kept picking out guys who either mentally abusive or passive-aggressive probably because I was buying the whole image of needing a boyfriend to establish your status.   I bought into the need to help people and to be "good and kind" as a way to get the right man to be attracted to you.   Unfortunately, that kind of conditioning can also attract men who want to control you and because you want to help so badly, it's easy let it happen.   We have to start educating our kids in elementary school and tell them what a healthy dynamic in a relationship is - that a good friend does not borrow all your coolest stuff and never gives it back - or when you do get it back - it's broken.  They need to drop friends like that like a bad habit because they will only use and abuse and never equal the playing field.  Parents need to do some role playing so that our kids will know what to say to those ass wipes but even that sometimes that is not enough.  I was bullied in school and as best as I tried to prevent it - Danielle was too- ironically at a karate school that we enrolled her so that she would know how to stand up to bullies.   

I once sat on a panel at a high school that was addressing domestic abuse.  I worked at Children's Home Society at the time which was a charity that helped abused children.   One of the people on the panel was high school girl who was pretty and well spoken - we had a chance to talk before the panel started.   When it was her turn, she told the students about her experience with her boyfriend.  He was a popular handsome athlete and she was a shy honor student.   He started off as very charming and sweet - a guy who would literally do anything for her.   As time when on, he started to change.   He would call her constantly on her cell phone to see where she was.   He verbally put her down not only in private but in front of his friends.   He started to isolate her and didn't want her to see her friends and to spend all her time with him.   Then the verbal abuse started to spiral into physical abuse.   He would get mad if she wanted to study and not be with him.   He would smack her and then the smacks turned into punches, but he was careful not to hit her face so no one would know.   After the abuse, he was so sweet and loving that she was convinced that he would learn and it would be the last time.  But it never was and it got worse.  She would take herself to the emergency room and pay with the money that she had saved up for college so that her parents would not be alerted through their insurance company.   She wore long sleeve shirts and long pants even in the hot South Florida sun so that no one could see the welts and bruises.   She blew through all the money she had saved for college just to cover her abuse and shame.   One day, her mother came into her room while she was changing and gasped.   The truth was out and her parents were outraged - not at her but at her boyfriend.   They asked her why she would stay with someone like that and her answer was the the six saddest words on the planet: "Because he says he loves me."  She eventually broke up with him with help from her parents and school counselors.   They tried to prosecute but the wounds were old and it would be he said/she said which is what so many women in domestic abuse situations find - they are the ones on trial and not their abusers.  But getting away was the best thing she could have done.   She closed her part of the panel by saying that she knew there were girls in the audience who were going through the same thing right now and they need to hear what she was saying - to reconnect with their friends, parents and school counselors so they could get help but because the truth was that love does not hurt and it never should.   

I sat there in that high school auditorium trying to keep my own emotions in check because I had gone through the same thing in college - the abusive boyfriend who belittled, isolated me and physically abused me although it was only once.  I never had a trip to the emergency room, but my psyche ended up being badly wounded for years.   My turning point was when I was getting ready to go see my boyfriend Lee while I was still living at home and my father sat on the couch and started to cry.  I asked him what was wrong.   He told me that he wished I would stop seeing Lee because he just didn't make me happy, it broke his heart.  He just wanted me to be happy.   I sat down next to my dad and cried with him.   It was a release - like this facade that I had been laboring under had finally been torn down and now I could see how it was effecting those around me.   It made my father cry for God's sake!  I hugged my dad for a long time and thanked him.   Because even though my dad cried in front of me, it took balls for a guy who had fought in WWII to do that.  I broke up with Lee that night. 

After the panel, I went up to that young woman and gave her a big hug.  I told her I had a similar experience in college and how I wish someone would have had the courage to tell me that in high school.   I told her that she probably saved a few girls out there in the audience.   We hugged with tears streaming down our faces and she said that this was the first time she told her story.  I told her that she needed to keep telling her story to anyone who would listen - that it was important.   

The belief in the fairy tale ending and living happily ever after that it can blind even the smartest women to someone who is manipulative.   Let's face it, abusive men don't start out as a tool in the courting phase or they would never get a second date.   One woman I know who recently got out a bad marriage compared it to a death by slow boil.   When you first get in - the water is fine and as you acclimate, and the temperature rises or the abuse increases and you find a way to ignore it or tell yourself it's normal until it's boiling and you have to either escape or be boiled alive.   I imagine that was how Katy Holmes felt.    My guess is that while Tom Cruise is the absolute prototype Prince Charming- the guy has charisma to spare - living with someone whose that controlling can be a nightmare no matter how hot and rich they are.   She got away from Tom in a way most counselors tell you - to make a plan that might take months to execute and get some outside help - in this case it was her father.   She got an apartment, changed her e-mail, cell phone numbers and waited until her man was half way around the world so he couldn't get to her so she would change her mind.   Having a good support network is important when leaving a bad relationship the same way addicts need a support group to keep from using drugs.   Katy Perry recently wrote a song called "Wide Awake" about her break-up with Russell Brand.  I like this video because she goes back in time to try to warn her younger self about the pitfalls of a bad relationship.   It's a great video that can be used as a conversation starter with your kids about what she was going through in her life and how she found the courage to break free.  She even cold cocks Prince Charming who apparently is a poser.   The moral of the video is that you can be beautiful, rich and famous and still fall for the wrong guy but you can learn from it and become stronger.  

I'm a people pleaser and while it's taken me years to channel my inner bitch to help protect myself from other bitches or assholes, it's just not an attitude I'm comfortable with - because Cinderella would never tell anyone "Screw this, I've put all this time onto your project - making you look good.  I'm not even getting any of the credit or rewards from it.  So ass wipe, I'm outta here and you're on your own."   That's not very storybook is it?  Yet, we have to train our kids to be able to say just that to protect themselves from manipulative people who seek out the good and kind so that they can exploit them.  Now, I'm not saying they need to have that attitude all the time - then they'd be not better than the people we're trying to protect them from but they need to know the signs so that they are not putting way more into a relationship then they are getting back.  They need to have a line of demarcation that let's them know when they might be tripping into the danger zone.  

Here are just a few trouble signs to watch out for - based on my experience and others who have been there:

1. It's great that a guy wants to be helpful - but if he's offering to help out too much or too soon - that's a flag sign.   After one or two dates, it's not normal for him to want to help you with errands, painting your apartment, paying for that class you wanted to take - it might seem generous but you could be heading from generous to controlling. 

2. Needing to know where you are at all times is not concern - it's another form of control.   If he shows up unexpectedly at something that you and your girlfriends are at just to surprise you- then he's having a hard time with boundaries - beware.  

3. Texting is a two edged sword.   I know that texting is a way most younger people communicate, but if it's with a constant need to know where you are - there's a problem.    If he has a GPS on his phone that tracks where you are - that's a scary sign and you might need to change your cell phone number. 

4. You have a right to do things without him.  If he's threatened by that - it's a first step to isolating you from your friends and family.   Did I mention the boundaries thing?   Controlling assholes don't have any. 

5. Making demeaning jokes at your expense.  This is never okay and ending it with "It was a joke" does not excuse it.  

6. When things go bad - it's always your fault.  Lee once called me up to yell at me because it was raining and he couldn't go fishing.   Now I get that he was disappointed but last I checked, I didn't control the weather.  So what did I do?  I apologized profusely for the weather because obviously something I did caused it to rain.  Yeah, your sense of self can get that warped. 

7.  Don't get angry at your friends and family for not trying to do more.  They probably tried to tell you but knew that if they pushed too hard you would cut them off completely.   It took something like seeing my dad cry to finally shake me up so that I could find my way out of a really bad situation.   

We need to let our children know that they deserve to be loved and what that means.   Love is kind.  Love is patient.  Love is gentle.  Love does not control.   Love let's you be who you are and celebrates your success.   Love tells you everyday that you are valued and that you matter.    But love has to come first and foremost from your ability to love yourself.   If you are telling yourself that he will stop hurting you emotionally or physically because you love him, then you need to stop in the name of love.   Because it's not really love - it's a misguided sense of allegiance that steals your soul until you can't feel much of anything anymore.    I finally left Lee and then I met Patrick who still didn't treat me right but was a step up.   Finally, I met the love of my life, Max who has taught me to love, trust,  laugh and to succeed in life on my own terms.   We're partners, lovers, and friends.   I thank God everyday that I didn't give up on love because it can find you when you least expect it.   He didn't ride up on a white horse and offer to take me away from all this.   He asked me to be a part of his life and that he would love me for who I was.   We've been married for 20 years and there have been good times and bad times - we've definitely been richer and poorer but I wouldn't trade any of it.   So for all you ladies waiting for a Prince to slay your dragons  - some advice:  slay your own damn dragons and build your own castle - one that you can share with the one you love. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Fight for the Right to Part "T"

Being a child of the 1970's, you got to see some really cool TV as a kid.    In addition to The Carol Burnett Show, one of my other favorite comedy shows was Laugh In because it had strong women who created characters that could hold their own with the men.   Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were more than happy to entertain the weird characters that Ruth Buzzy, Joanne Whirley and Lily Tomlin brought to life.   It affirmed for me once again as a nine year old girl who one day wanted to be a funny lady, that if you could dream it and write it, you could be it.   Back then, comedy albums were huge.  I remember listening to Bill Cosby's My Brother Russell with my brother's and sisters until the record literally wore out.    Women were making comedy albums too and one of my favorite Laugh In alumni albums came from Lily Tomlin who played Edith Ann.  Edith Ann was a childlike philosopher whose dry sense of humor really appealed to me.   I loved the way she could size up a situation with a child's perspective (hey, I was a child myself) and get away with all sorts of things with her trusty dog Buster.   Unlike a lot of comedians who would pretend to be kids and make them over the top obnoxious, you could tell that she respected children and the way they looked at the world.   And That's the Truth was another comedy album that also got worn out.  I heard it so many times that I could do most of the routines on the album.   I'd perform some of the bits in school which helped me get over being shy.  The other kids through it was funny.  Edith Ann was always a big hit during recess. 

I also loved the cover of the album one of the things that I thought was the most interesting to me about Lily Tomlin was the way she wrote her name.   I loved that the "T" in her signature, looked like a real T and not like the cursive capital Ts we had to make in grade school.  It was definitive and had no apologies.   It didn't try to be something that it wasn't - it was a simple understandable T dammit!   Everyone could see that.  So right then I decided to make my capital Ts that way when I wrote in cursive.    I would use that T in the words "The" at the beginning of a sentence, or "This" or "That", okay you get the idea.   I'd get marked down on my papers but I didn't care - I wanted to make my Ts like Lily Tomlin - she didn't conform so why did I?  Even though it was the 1970's and the Equal Rights Movement was steaming on ahead - it didn't seem to apply to being pro-writing choice when it came to cursive.  You needed to write the way everyone else did - and that forced conformity really pissed me off as a kid - even though on the outside I was this sweet, shy little girl who just wanted to make other people happy.   

More than that, the cursive chart just never made sense to me.   Looking at it now - few people really write like this and it's hard to understand how people were able to read cursive at all.   I mean really, a cursive Q looks like a backwards 2, the F looks like a T with a stick in it's middle and the J and Z just look like they are trying too hard.  No wonder my left  handed brain just couldn't grasp it - the print letters made more sense even if the Q looks like an O with penis envy.   Of course I had to rebel against this non-sensical way of writing - Lily Tomlin's Ts brought order to a really confusing cursive world.  Unfortunately, my teachers didn't see it that way.  

My parents would notice the marked down papers when I brought them home and would ask me why I didn't write the things the way everyone was supposed to.   I told them because I liked that way and it made it different.   My parents knew when to pick their battles and getting on my case about my handwriting was not worth the effort.   Remember, this was the 70's and the world was changing at a quick pace.   They had three teens in the house - two of which were extremely rebellious at the time, so if letting me have my Ts meant one less argument, then so be it.   I always loved that about my parents - they let their kids be who they were and didn't try to project their own hopes and ambitions on to us - they would just try to guide.   Of course being in the middle of a recession and just trying to keep your head above water also helped keep things in perspective.    Here we are 40 years later and the song remains the same.  

I appreciate that now as a parent whose own kids are rugged individuals.  I love the way they see the world and what they see as right and what they see as injustices.  My son knows what's happening in Syria which is surprising for an 11 year old.  Hell, it wasn't until I started doing international health projects in my 40's that I really had an idea of how countries outside of the US really work.   He has even created his own country Amosan which welcomes of gays, the form of government includes democracy and a constitutional monarchy, there is enough food for everyone and it's main exports are sugar cane, rice and iPhones.   It's a very liberal place which is located in the Indian Ocean and has beautiful beaches.   He's also written a book called Mystery Falls and wants to publish it on Amazon which is actually easy to do.  Amber has a blog on and writes about cartoon combinations like the Kids Next Door, Total Drama Island, The Regular Show and Stoked and she is the favorite author of quite a few people.   She also loves to draw and would like to be a cartoonist one day.  Many parents would tell their kids not to waste time on things like this - but my feeling is let them be who they are - as long as they are keeping up their grades I'm not going to try to make them into something they aren't. 

I appreciate now particularly as I work with teens who are feeling the pressure to make good grades so that they can qualify for scholarships in college.  Every weekend is filled with extracurricular activities so that they can get into the college of their or their parent's choice.   There is zero down time and the stress is palatable.   I remember putting that same pressure on myself as a teen (actually my parents really didn't push that much).  I was working after school at Publix to save money for college and trying to maintain a 3.8 point grade average.   I was super stressed and would have crying jags once I got home.  I see that same sense of frustration on the faces of some of the kids that I teach Sunday school to - they are tired of school, they are tired of trying to maintain the facade of achievement, they are tired of their parents for not letting them do what they really want to do which is goof off and have fun with their friends for the entire weekend.  They're just tired and that will lead to some serious issues once they get away from Mom and Dad in college or cause some serious burn-out once they get there.   If the kid is pushing themselves hard on their own, I think we need to step in and allow them the chance to Part-T -to allow them to be themselves and not worry about a college application for once - they need the down time.
I remember talking to a group of women at work with a very opinionated consultant about how kids are doing on school.   This one woman talked about how they didn't have weekends because every minute was spent taking her sons from football to baseball and doing that even if they were sick because the coaches expected them to play not matter what.   Her kids were exhausted also trying to keep their grades up.   I mentioned that sometimes it's okay to let a child fail because they learn to pick themselves up and how resilient they really are.  This comment incurred gasps from the women in the group.   I also mentioned that Dave Thomas of Wendy's was a C student and that sometimes business leaders who weren't A+ students had an easier time managing people because they can think outside the box.   The consultant mentioned that those kids will not get into Harvard with a C average like she did.   I didn't want to point out to this well heeled young woman that even after getting a four year degree from an Ivy League school - she was in her 30's and still working for her mother.  My God that degree really took her far.   Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, failed at a business called Traf-O-Data and eventually founded Microsoft.    

We live in a society that is so afraid of failing that it can lead you to muddle in a sea of conformity and mediocrity because being creative and taking chances is risky. But the reality is that you learn when you fail - the failure can drive you to innovate what you've been doing and come up with something better. Colonial Sander's secret recipe was rejected a 1,000 times before he founded KFC.  Before Evan Williams founded Twitter, he had a podcast platform that he had to abandon when iTunes started running podcasts.   Fred Smith received a D for submitting the idea that would eventually become the company that he founded - FedEx.  Walt Disney was fired by an editor because, "he lacked imagination and had no original ideas."  

So as another school year starts, let's take it easy on our kids and allow them to be who they need to be.   My son has grown his hair down to the back of his neck and is wearing it in a pony tail.   Do I worry about him being teased?  Hell, yeah, but he has to figure out how to handle things on his own.  I will tell him that he has to maintain a certain grade point average and that he has to apply himself for sure, but he doesn't have to be a straight A student like I was because that's just not who he is.  I'd rather that he's happy than losing sleep over a middle school science project he got a C on that isn't going to matter in 30 years anyway.   We've got to give our children the right to be who they are - to Part-T because being an individual who is not afraid of failure is the best way to build tomorrow's leaders.  Mark Cuban, the billionaire who sold his company to Yahoo once said, "I've learned that it doesn’t matter how many times you failed. You only have to be right once. I tried to sell powdered milk. I was an idiot lots of times, and I learned from them all.”   So is letting your kids be comfortable in their own skin important?  You bet your sweet bippy it is - and that's the truth!