Is indignation worth the risk?

We don’t typically answer the phone unless we recognize the number, but this particular time Andrew picked it up. Then he said, “Microsoft Operating System Service Center? You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” and hung up.

I was surprised. Speaking his mind when what he has to say is less than charitable is completely out of character for him. But that was only the first surprise.

A moment later, the phone rang again. Caller ID displayed the same number. Andrew picked up the handset and replaced it to end the call without engaging. Within moments, it rang again, so he picked up the handset and replaced it, again.

At first, I was amused that the bogus telemarketer had the nerve to call back. By the third or fourth call, I was getting nervous, wondering when he would give up. After half a dozen calls, Andrew unplugged the land line. That stopped the phone from ringing, but it didn’t stop the answering machine from picking up. This is what it captured.

“Hey you motherfucker, are you afraid of me? You son of bitch.”

My answer to that question was decidedly yes. Despite the fact that the background noise and his accent indicated that the caller was in an overseas call center, I was scared. (I could be wrong about the call coming from overseas, but you’ll note that “son of bitch” is not a typo. He did not say “son of a bitch,” as I would have.)

After that, Andrew unplugged the answering machine, too, effectively disconnecting us from the repeated assault on my nerves. When we plugged everything back in, about an hour later, the phone was quiet.

Andrew clearly scolded the caller (for which I lovingly applaud him), but the response was more than excessive.

I had a similar situation in the bank the other day when I suggested to an employee that he shouldn’t be discussing politics with a customer in front of other, potentially not-like-minded, customers. I was chastised in turn by another customer for not respecting the employee’s freedom of speech. (If we’re friended on Facebook you can read all about that.)

Fortunately, my public admission of discomfort (okay, annoyance) did not result in a threat to my well-being, as it clearly did in the case of the bogus telemarketer. But I did feel uncomfortably exposed.

It has become painfully clear how easy it can be to silence dissent.

For now, we will go back to our policy of not answering the phone if Caller ID leaves any question as to who is calling. So if you want to discuss this with me, you’re probably better off writing.

Keep reading

A passing nor’easter made the wind howl. I snuggled under my flannel sheets and thought about Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, the book I had just finished reading about a black family in rural Mississippi during the days leading up to hurricane Katrina.

The protagonist is a fifteen-year old who is pregnant. She has three brothers; their mother is dead and their father drinks. The local boys, including her brother, Skeet, fight their pit bulls for bragging rights. Near the end of the story, the family struggles to survive the hurricane. It’s tense and moving, and I was engaged in their struggles, but it was not until I read the author’s afterword that I cried.

Jesmyn Ward is black. She graduated with an MFA from the University of Michigan in 2005. She was back home in DeLisle, Mississippi, with her family, when Katrina hit. In the afterword, she described fleeing from the house with her family as the water rose and seeking shelter with a white family that turned them away. I was shocked and I felt shame—for being white.

Surprised by the strength of my response, I spent some time puzzling it over. Here’s what I came up with: A book is an invitation to suspend your life and step into someone else’s world. Everyone is welcome, because the author wants the reader to share what they’ve written. The afterword was something different. Those pages were to be read at your own risk, as if the author knew a dose of reality would hit harder. She shared her personal experience and I felt exposed, as if she was saying to me, and other white readers, “check your privilege.”

In an interview Ms. Ward gave to BBC News she said, “When I hear people talking about the fact that they think we live in a post-racial America… it blows my mind, because I don’t know that place. I’ve never lived there.”

Then she said, “If one day, [people] are able to pick up my work and read it and see … the characters in my books as human beings and feel for them, then I think that is a political act.”

Today, more than ever before, it is important that books like this are read by everyone, everywhere. We are so limited by our own experiences that even those of us with the best of intentions may sometimes appear careless in deed or thought. It’s time to be hyper-vigilant, as we resist those things that we deem unacceptable, to remember that our view is not the only one.

The nor’easter made the wind howl, but the heaviest rain, sleet, and snow happened elsewhere. I was safe and warm, wrapped in flannel and my white privilege.

The emotional one

In my family of origin I was known as “the emotional one.” My mother served this up as an explanation hinging on an apology to my sisters who were infinitely more stoic in their demeanor. My memory is faulty, but I am willing to assume that my mother was genuinely distressed for me when I cried. I know, however, that my sisters were decidedly unmoved. I do remember occasions when one or the other would say, with exasperation or disdain, “Why is she crying, now?” Empathy was in short supply and hugging it out unheard of.

After I cast my vote for HRC, I got in my car and felt the familiar restriction in my throat that presages extreme emotion—and tears. Immediately a familiar tug-of-war began in my mind. One part of me wanted to give in to the tears, let them happen without question for whatever catharsis might be looming, the other part of me began to analyze why I was having such strong emotions and questioned whether any of the possibilities justified my response.

At this point you’re probably thinking this post is about the election, and while it does relate obliquely, that’s more happenstance than intention. I really wanted to muse about feelings, and how not to judge them.

The weekend before the election, I attended a seminar on visiting the sick and Jewish mourning customs. In small groups we shared why we were interested in the subject. When it was my turn to speak, I could barely choke out the words for the pain in my throat. Crying and gasping, I stuttered my reason for attending. I was horrified at my inability to control myself and apologized repeatedly as we rejoined the class.

When we left, a woman who witnessed my distress, with whom I am only casually acquainted, asked if she could give me a hug. I don’t have the words to explain how I felt as she hugged me, but in that moment I was deeply appreciative that she wanted to express that she cared about my pain.

Strong, negative emotions can be difficult to witness. In our society we’re expected to bury anger, despair and sadness to spare others from discomfort. That is something that I don’t seem to be able to do, but like others who are exposed to my tears, I am made uncomfortable by them. My desire is not to learn to restrain myself, but to become comfortable with my responses; to acknowledge that they are an integral part of who I am, and that without them I would be, somehow, less than.

Maybe this is about the election. People are in pain, sad, and scared. At least fifty percent of the country could use a good, strong hug; affirmation that we care about their pain, even if there is nothing we can do to help. We need to be allowed to feel our feelings, otherwise how do we ever move on from anything?

Not minding my own business on the MBTA

Riding the Red Line to my class this morning, I watched a woman get on at the Central Square stop. She was in her late 60’s, perhaps older, and she wore an embroidered jacket, tan slacks, and rather sporty tennis shoes. Her curly auburn hair was too short to be considered long, but long enough to suggest that she was not fully embracing her age. She carried two bags; a plastic tote emblazoned with a pink ribbon for breast cancer, and an oversized purse covered in a busy pattern. I mentally filed her under Cambridge liberal.

Once seated, diagonally across from me, she unzipped her handbag and took out a piece of candy. She unwrapped it, popped it into her mouth, and closed her fingers around the cellophane wrapper. She then slowly lowered her hand to the edge of her seat and, looking studiously into the distance, opened her fingers and dropped the wrapper on the floor. The charade of nonchalance, meant to deflect attention, did not work. I witnessed the whole thing.

I was immediately reminded of a story my sister-in-law told me about the time she was walking on the sidewalk and a car, stopped at a red light, tossed a bag of garbage out of the window. Without hesitation, she grabbed the bag and tossed it right back in! Could I be as brave?

I stared at the woman until I caught her eye and then I deliberately looked down at the wrapper and back up at her while my eyebrows communicated that she should pick up her litter. I am convinced she understood, but there was no sign that she was the least bit discomfited. Between Kendall and Park Street I stared at her. Periodically, she would check to see if I was still staring, and each time I repeated the performance.

Why was I so invested in this silent battle? Was it because her furtive behavior made her seem even guiltier to me? If she had just slid the wrapper into one of her bags, I could have spent the ride observing other people, rather than fixating on her. Why didn’t she do that?

As the train approached Park Street, I struggled to decide what to do. I thought about picking up the wrapper myself before the train stopped, but I was afraid if it did I would land on my face. Also, I thought she might kick me while I was bent over in front of her.

When the train pulled into Park Street station, I got up from my seat. As I walked past her I said, as brightly as I could, “Don’t forget to take your litter before you leave.”

She didn’t even look at me.

Did she pick it up once I was gone? Was she embarrassed enough to think twice about littering next time? Was she even from Cambridge? I’ll never know.

When I got to my class I discovered I had the wrong day and I had to turn right around and get back on the T to go home. Was that karmic retribution for not minding my own business?

I invite you to leap into my business and tell me what you think. But no littering, please.

Never Trump

I was raised during the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, in a family of three girls with parents who made it abundantly clear that we could be whatever we wanted to be, provided we were willing to work hard enough to achieve our goals.

Not everyone agreed with my parents.

I worked hard, harder than hard. My bosses appreciated and rewarded my efforts, and yet it seemed evident that being a woman was a handicap if one’s aim was to climb the corporate ladder.

When I was quite young, my male boss said to me, “The kind of woman I like is one who can suck a tennis ball through a garden hose.” I didn’t know what that meant, although when he followed it up with, “Preferably named Candy, Bambi, or Lucille,” I had an idea. I don’t remember what I said in reply, but I’m sure I didn’t protest. In those days, going along to get along was how lots of young women behaved at work.

Women exhibited a gender bias, too, which I can only hope was subconscious. During a downturn in the economy in the early ‘90s, I participated in discussions about an impending lay-off. Our human resources department, staffed entirely by women, suggested that we keep the man who was the sole support of his family rather than the pregnant woman whose husband had a job.

“She’s better at her job,” I protested.

I was over-ruled.

After many years of observing and experiencing subtle and less-than-subtle discrimination, I met my Waterloo. I asked a male boss for a promotion and he said, “Why can’t you just be happy doing what you’re doing?”

Furious, I went to Human Resources. The woman I spoke to admitted that the company seemed to have a glass ceiling and suggested that instead of trying to go up it would be better to go wide. In other words, if you work hard and prove your value and don’t get rewarded for it, work harder.

There was an OpEd in The Boston Globe today by former Vermont Governor, Madeleine May Kunin. On the subject of Hillary Clinton’s waning popularity she says, “She is the same woman as she was three years ago. She has not changed her genome, her values, or her vision for America. What has changed is that she has emblazoned the word “ambition” on her forehead by declaring that she wants to be president.”

I fear that younger women don’t fully realize how much more there is to be done to obtain equality in the workplace, or anywhere else. The discrimination they face may not be as blatant, but it’s still there.

I used to think we lived in a world where anything was possible, and that was exciting. Now I think we live in a world where anything is possible, and I’m scared.

Vote for Hillary.

Ah, yes, snow

It’s February and it’s snowing. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but it was over fifty degrees the last few days and I’d almost forgotten it was winter. It comes back quickly though, the realization of how inconvenient winter weather can be. The snow reminds me of all the errands I’d been meaning to do. Even though I’d managed to avoid doing them for quite some time, today was the day I would have gotten around to them, really, only now I can’t, because of the snow.

Snow also makes me hanker for food I don’t have in the house. I can’t quite put my finger on what, exactly, I want to eat, but I know I don’t have it, because that’s the nature of snow. Snow conjures images of hot cocoa with marshmallows; baked brie and apple slices; little baked puffs filled with the makings of pepperoni pizza. Yes! That’s what I need, the bite-sized pepperoni pizza-filled dough! Damn the snow. It’s probably been twenty years since I’ve had those. Today would have been the perfect day.

Today’s snow isn’t a blizzard, they’re not predicting more than eight inches or so, nothing our snow blower can’t handle, if only one of us was in good enough shape to use it. My husband tumbled off his bike a couple of weeks ago and is still bruised and dizzy. I’ve been ill and coughing so hard that I’ve pulled a muscle in my chest, which makes coughing even more painful. And to make matters worse, it’s not pretty, fluffy snow; it’s wet, heavy snow, the kind that threatens to turn into ice. The kind that makes me wonder if letter carriers get hazard pay. The kind that makes you check the batteries in your flashlights because it brings down power lines. Of course, if you need batteries, too bad, because you’re not going out.

I could go out, if I really wanted to. I’d leave the Prius tucked safely in the garage and take the Subaru Outback instead. The Subaru is bigger, heavier, rugged. It’s better in the snow, safer, which is to say, if someone slid into me I’d be less likely to be smooshed than I would in the Prius. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the Subaru could get up the hills to our neighborhood when it was time to come home. There’s a detour I could take, but I always optimistically start up the hill anyway. If the car refuses to climb, I have to back down again, holding my breath that I won’t meet another foolhardy individual on their way up.

It’s probably best not to take a car out today. I think we have batteries, and if we don’t, I can always crawl into bed. It’s never too early to go to sleep. Now if I can just keep my mind off pizza-flavored snack food I think I’ll be okay.

Our guest room

Can you call it a guest room if your visitor has no place to put their things? There’s no space in the closet and no room in the bureau. There is, of course, a bed, which we cover with an old sheet in an attempt to protect it from cat fur, but that doesn’t really work; the cats have no trouble burrowing underneath. When a visitor is imminent, I strip the bed and wash the sheets if there’s the slightest evidence that the cats have been pretending to be guests.

The bureau is elderly. I bought it used for my first apartment when I was a junior in college. It’s my repository for off-season clothes and things I can’t bear to part with. All the drawers are swollen and sticky, permanently misshapen after years of expanding and contracting. One of them is missing a handle and I need to use a screwdriver to pry it open. I try not to do that too often though because that is also the one whose dovetailed corners are no longer connected. The back panel of the bureau is convex, sprung so far away that you can peer through the side to see which drawer you want to attempt to open.

I’d like to replace the bureau, another used one would be fine, but my husband objects. He thinks the room is too crowded as is. I think having the old leather loveseat adds charm to the room. Besides, it’s a place to keep my stuffed animals, and extra blankets that I can’t cram into the closet.

The closet is another off-season repository; this one for dresses, skirts and suits, things I haven’t needed since I left the traditional work force years ago. It also has my wedding dress, which my mother finally insisted I get out of her house after I’d been married almost twenty years. It takes up a lot of space due to preservation packaging: it’s shaped like a woman. For now I consider it sacrosanct, although I’m not sure why. I will never be able to fit into again and my daughter is not the sentimental sort. Should she ever need a wedding dress, I’m fairly certain mine would not be considered.

However, there were many items in that closet that could go, and with guests coming in a few weeks I decided it was finally time to free up some space. Some things were obvious, even I understand that shoulder pads are no longer stylish, but I assumed I’d have to try on other things to see if they still fit. I was wrong. I held a skirt up to my waist and pulled it as wide as it could go. I saw my hips on either side. Into the black garbage bag it went along with anything that had a tag of a certain size.

I could picture the younger me in all those outfits destined for Goodwill. I saved them because I hoped she’d be back someday. I’m ready to admit that is never going to happen.

So we’re ready for our guests. There’s room in the closet, the sheets on the bed are clean, and if you push the stuffed animals over you can sit on the sofa. Frankly, there may even be room in the bureau, but you’ll have to pry open a drawer to find out.

Think twice and forgive

The parking lot at our local Trader Joe’s is always a disaster, but during our winter from hell, the snow piled up and the lot got even smaller and harder to navigate; tempers frayed. One day, I saw a woman standing in front of what seemed to be the only empty parking spot. I paused in front of her to contemplate my next move. She approached my car so I rolled down my window and asked, “Are you really saving that spot?”

She looked rueful. “My car’s dead. I’m waiting for my husband to come jump start it.”

I nodded, or said ‘oh,’ or otherwise indicated I understood. As I pulled away, she called angrily, “Why do you people always assume the worst?”

I flushed with shame and embarrassment. If she hadn’t approached me I wouldn’t have said anything. My face might have registered annoyance, but I probably would have kept my mouth shut. As I walked by her to the store I struggled to redeem myself. The best I could do was to blurt defensively, “It’s understandable that people make assumptions.”

She said, “My battery is dead and the only way my husband will be able to jump me is to pull into the spot next to me. I’ve been standing here forever, explaining and putting up with dirty looks. It’s embarrassing. What’s wrong with you people? Why do you always jump to the worst conclusion?” She was radiating anger.

Unable to squash my defensiveness, I reiterated, “It may be embarrassing, but the way people react is understandable.” Then, hoping for some kind of absolution I said, “I have a Prius, so I can’t help you jump your car. Do you want me to ask someone else?”

“No,” she snapped. “There’s my husband.” She turned away and I went into the store.

I suffered over that incident for days, feeling the shame anew each time I thought about it. She had clearly been saving the parking spot and there was nothing to be gained by my asking her if that was what she was doing. She was right. I had assumed the worst and then allowed myself the luxury of letting my disdain leak out.

I had hoped to balance this story with one that could demonstrate how my tendency to say what I’m thinking can result in positive interactions, too, but after struggling with that for a while I realized it was irrelevant, an impulse related to my continued need to defend myself. It was time well spent, though, because it helped me realize that the real point of this musing was to teach myself about forgiveness, not from the woman in the parking lot, but from myself. If I could genuinely forgive myself I wouldn’t still be stressing about things that happened weeks, months, or even years ago.

I’m sorry that I thought the worst of the woman in the parking lot without knowing her circumstances, and I will try to be more careful in the future. That notwithstanding, I’m sorrier that I can’t be kinder to myself. I hope it’s not too late to learn.

Writer’s block

Today, I turned to my writer’s block for inspiration. That sounds like an oxymoron, I know, but this writer’s block is a small, squat book called The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas to Jump-start Your Imagination.

writers block2

I rarely resort to using a prompt; it hurts my pride. But the weekly blog I’ve written for the past five years has fallen off to monthly of late and I’m starting to panic. If I’ve run out of interesting things to share, maybe I shouldn’t be blogging at all. At least, that’s what my mean-spirited internal naysayer would have me believe. My more charitable internal cheerleader reminds me that I’ve been so busy lately working on my manuscript that of course my blog posts have suffered. I’m grateful that the cheerleader can take the naysayer in a fair fight, but it doesn’t really change the fact that I’m coming up empty. And so I close my eyes and open the block.

In addition to prompts, which they call “spark words,” the block has short stories, advice and photos. The first page I open to is an advice piece called, “Write Naked,” something Victor Hugo apparently used to do. I shudder and flip to a different page. This time I land on the prompt, HEIST. I groan. Since I have never robbed a bank, or participated in any Ocean’s Eleven– (or Twelve- or Thirteen-) style activity, this is not a spark that will ignite a personal anecdote. (It did cause me to wander off to look at Mohegan Sun’s website, but that was a delaying tactic which is not at all what I’m after here.)

Writers have their own unique processes; what works for one may be stifling for another. It would be logical, then, to assume that there is no right way to use prompts. But I think there should be one basic rule: when you resort to looking for a prompt, you should use the one you stumble on first. The alternative is to reject the prompt and look at another one, and so on, and so on. When you allow yourself the luxury to hunt for an appealing prompt, you’ve defeated the purpose of the whole thing. You might as well use all that time to think about something you’d really like to write about, which leaves me with HEIST.

The last time I gave in to the urge to write about not having anything to write about was in May of 2011, in a post called Writing Prompt. In the end, it wasn’t about that at all. I hoped that this piece would also take an interesting turn near the end and I would be able to salvage an otherwise mundane offering with a soupçon of insight. I’m afraid, however, that will not happen here. (Ouch! My internal naysayer just decked my internal cheerleader.) Instead, I will spend the next few days thinking about ways to incorporate the word HEIST into my life. Perhaps my next post will be from jail. TTFN.

Red Cross: you donate, they sell

Did you know that the Red Cross sells blood? I didn’t.

I was talking to a Haitian friend of mine about charitable contributions and I mentioned that my husband and I make annual donations to the Red Cross. She gave me an earful about how after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the money that was supposed to arrive from the Red Cross – didn’t. The very next day, a childhood friend of mine, Stephen Engelberg, Editor-in-Chief of the independent, non-profit, news outlet, ProPublica, alerted me to this article: The Red Cross CEO Has Been Serially Misleading About Where Donors’ Dollars Are Going.

It said, in part, “Most of what the Red Cross does is take donated blood and sell it to health care providers. Of the more than $3 billion that the Red Cross spent last year, two-thirds was spent not on disaster relief but rather on the group’s blood business.” Come again? The Red Cross sells blood? And it uses the money that unsuspecting do-gooders donate to pay wages and benefits to the people who manage the business? I’m shocked! And I’m not saying that with my Jon Stewart voice: I really am shocked.

I visited the American Red Cross website to educate myself. If selling blood is big business, it can’t be too hard to find out about, right? Well you’re not going to hear about it from the Red Cross. There is zero indication on their web site that they sell blood. As a matter of fact, the page that has their mission statement clearly says, “The Red Cross is a voluntary relief movement not prompted in any manner by desire for gain.” I’m confused. If that’s the case, how come they’re selling blood?

Still feeling foolish, I kept exploring and came up with this article, The Business of Blood, from 2006 on Slate. That article explains the trail of blood. It also says, “The system of blood distribution hasn’t always relied on volunteer donors. Until the 1970s, a major portion of the nation’s blood supply came from paid donors. But a government study found that volunteered blood was much less prone to hepatitis contamination. From then on, blood banks had to label their packages “paid” or “volunteer,” which had the effect of eliminating paid-donor blood from the national supply.” So, it’s our collective fault that people are donating blood, out of the goodness of their hearts (and circulatory systems), that other people then sell?

Perhaps this is not news to you. Maybe you saw the article in a July, 2012, issue of Forbes, The Guys Who Trade Your Blood For Profit, that outlined the difficulties a startup blood distributor had competing with the American Red Cross. And maybe the scandal about where donor’s dollars are going isn’t a surprise either, because you saw the article on in January, 2012, Red Cross Responds To Documentary’s Charges Of Haiti Aid Failure. But I had no idea, and now I feel like a child who just found out that the tooth fairy isn’t real.