The Briefcase

The Briefcase

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Briefcase

Seems there's a bit more controversy than usual this year about Veteran's Day and how and whether to celebrate it. However you choose to mark it or not seems a very personal decision to me, but I can't get behind the idea of telling others how they should treat the day. It's only a day, after all, and everyone has their own family history. But I find I do have a problem with other people telling me that marking the day ends up celebrating war. Not in my family.
I've mentioned before that my dad was a WWII vet; he served in the Navy on the USS Kitkun Bay. The Kitkun Bay was in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Battle of Samar and other battles in the South Pacific that aren't talked about now, but at the time were big news. The Kitkun Bay took at least one kamikaze attack and suffered a lot of damage, though fortunately not as much as her sister baby flattop the Gambier Bay, which was sunk, like many other ships during those battles.
My dad joined up when he was 17, though he lied about his age. He was young and cocky and a lot of guys were doing it; it seemed like the right thing to do at that time, under those circumstances. He went from this young man:
To this, taken shortly after he was discharged:

I've talked before about the kind of father he was: silent, moody, unwilling to put up with noise and frequently yelling. I had always thought he was unnecessarily harsh (at least until I had my own kids and found myself bellowing much like he had when provoked). He had a dark side which was always, unrelentingly there with him, wreathed around him. I couldn't understand it, as a kid, but I was aware of that darkness and learned very early when to quietly dodge around him and wisp away like a ghost.
He didn't talk about his time during the war, not until much later when he was closer to his own end. Veteran's Day wasn't something we celebrated, but I know he marked it in some way on his own. It wasn't a happy day, certainly.

Earlier this year, during the summer, I got a call from a lady I didn't know, claiming to have my dad's old briefcase. She had come into possession of it through a convoluted and very unlikely set of circumstances, and had looked into it after being asked to throw it out. Inside the briefcase was a treasure trove of old papers and photos that my dad had carried around with him for decades. I had grown up with that briefcase, but we were never allowed to look inside it and it was strictly off limits. He carried it with him all of his life through many moves; even when he lost all of his other possessions, he managed to hang onto that old case. I had thought it was lost for good after his death, since his second wife had kept it and we'd lost track of her. I arranged to go pick up the briefcase from Judy, the sweet lady who had found it and kept it for me, and we went to visit and there it was, sitting on her kitchen counter, the heavy black leather case that immediately brought back the scent of my dad and the memory of his hands opening that case with his permanently bent and broken little finger.

There were a lot of the usual things you might expect in it, though there was almost no record of his life with us as a family, but there was a surprising amount of things from his time in the Navy, including his discharge papers and photos he'd taken, like this one:
as well as magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and then old yellowed newsletters from the Kitkun Bay, printed and distributed while he was on board.
If you click on the pictures you may be able to enlarge them enough to read them a bit. There were a lot more of these in his briefcase. And in one manila envelope in the bottom of the case, were some letters from me to my dad, with my address and others to contact if he needed to in case of emergency, during a late period in his life when he was homeless for awhile. He did end up coming and living with us for awhile to get back on his feet, and he had his case with him. I thought at the time he used it for job hunting, but he also must have been carrying around these older documents and photos.
When my sis Leslie saw this last photo, of the hospital ship, she gave a little gasp and said 'he's just a baby!', which was my reaction as well. That injured soldier is just a kid. Look at how young he is. He served in a war and was injured and who knows what he saw and endured. He was lucky to be alive, of course, but even ones who lived were never the same again. My dad carried that darkness around with him until he died. He would have been a very different person, and a different dad, had he not been on that flattop and gone through those battles.

So when I hear or read about people saying that Veteran's Day or Remembrance Day glorifies war, I say they and all of the merchants who have sales may be missing the point. It isn't about that stuff at all, of course. It's not a comfortable holiday, actually. For me, it means to pause and contemplate war and how damaging it is to all of us. Pause and remember these kids, then and now, who serve their country. We may associate Veteran's Day with old men now in their uniforms, hanging out and maybe having a parade, but they were this young when they went through hell.Whether they volunteered or were forced or are pushed into it by economic necessity, at the very least they deserve our respect, not just for today but all the time.

Monday, November 04, 2013

changes in attitude, changes in gratitude

Yeah, so it's been very busy around here. That's not new, of course, I have just felt out of cope for much of the time. It's so wearing at times to be a responsible adult and try to Do Everything You're Supposed to Do on time, in a good way. Sometimes I just want to run away and play, and it's not happening very often, it seems like. The state of the house and yard tell me I'm not keeping up with all of the 'supposed to's' as it is. I'm constantly wondering how other people manage to keep up with everything.
Latest news:
Not so good news: Paul is losing the company he's been working for and was very happy with, but the company is closing, so he's on the job search again. Here's hoping he lands something good sooner, since being us, we have no big financial cushion to land on. Being an artist and a games programmer/designer doesn't tend to lead to long term job stability and comfortable money cushions; at least it hasn't for us. I keep having to adjust my attitude to stay positive on that front.

Better News: I have been hired on a long term contract basis with the non-profit Boldly Me, for which I've been doing art and photography for awhile. Boldly Me has the stated purpose of building self esteem and public awareness for those who feel different. They hold classes and events and provide support and counseling and suchlike for anyone, really.
Though it originally started as a support structure for people with physical differences who needed support and a place where they could just be themselves and fit in, lots of people kept asking if they could join even if they didn't have any obvious differences, if they just felt different on the inside and felt like they didn't fit in. So Boldly Me became more broadly inclusive. It's been growing by leaps and bounds since it started about a year and a half ago.
I first got pulled in because I've known Alanna, the founder and leader, for years; our boys are good friends and we've known each other at least 10 years. When she first started talking about her dream a fair number of years ago now, I tried to encourage her. Alanna has always been a Person Who Gets Shit Done, and once she decided to go for it with Boldly Me, of course it took off.
I'll be their Program Manager for Print Media and Publications, along with being their pet photographer and general artist. Someone called it being their 'Media Goddess' which I rather like. :) I've been doing this sort of work for them already and enjoying it a lot, so that's a very good fit. And it's a great group of folks and a good organization, so I feel like I've landed in a really fortunate situation work-wise. I've never really worked for a non-profit group before, in a situation where I believed in the work and the cause, so it's a new experience to me, and a positive one. I always figured I had a good work ethic before, doing my best to do good work because I felt like it was the right thing to do and I wanted to be proud of the work that I produced, but this work, being for a cause and a purpose I find worthy of respect, adds a different kind of satisfaction to the actual work. I still strive to do the best job I can, but it's been very rare in a job situation to be valued for my opinions and viewpoints as a contributing member to the core values of the group, not just as a hired graphics wrist. My duties are more diverse and involved in helping shape what the organization does and how it accomplishes that, though I am hesitant to say that because it feels so strange to realize that I will be having an impact from within the group. So that's a very good thing.
This new development has had the odd effect of making me realize how much I've been holding myself back in work I've been doing; being hired to design logos or do graphics work is fine, but it's very easy to just do the job and not get invested in who or what it's for. Most of the paying work I've done in the last few years has been for things I didn't really care about, honestly.
It made it easier to focus on family, for one thing; most companies now demand your life be at work and I had already decided that wasn't where my priorities were, so screw that. So it's been a lot of small one-off jobs, really.

But increasingly in the last couple of years, I've been doing pro-bono work for Boldly Me as well as Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation. I've kind of realized how reserved I was being with it all; I hesitated to tell people even though I really believe in what both organizations do. I've been keeping all of my various worlds separate and silent, and now I'm questioning why that was, like I have had to hide the different aspects of myself from different sets of people in my life. And yet I love all of the varied sets of people I'm lucky enough to have in my life, even if they haven't intersected much.
I kind of feel like, what the hell, why shouldn't I just talk openly about it all? If you believe in something you should be able to speak openly about it, right? What have I been afraid of? Being judged? Being laughed at for helping out causes and people I believe in? I have been realizing that I've still been carrying around some of those old fears from pain I carried when I was younger, and falling into them without even realizing it. My own self-identified, comfortable identity as an 'artist' has increasingly not been enough to define who I am now, as an older person trying to raise boys in a challenging world. It's not enough anymore to define myself as an artist or graphics person, or as any one thing; adaptability is the key for me and the boys and Paul, I think.
Anyone who knows me will be nodding when I say that I have always been prone to self denigration (shut up, Jeff) and a strong and healthy self esteem has never been one of my firmer qualities. But you know, I feel like I'm getting closer and closer to being more fine with who I feel like I really am and who I want to be and merging the two into a stronger, whole person. It feels weird but right. And it feels weird but right to now join up with a non-profit that helps hurt people get stronger in their self esteem.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013


Bear with me, if you will. Here's the Webster's definition of fraught used as an adjective:

adjective \ˈfrt\

Definition of FRAUGHT

a : laden
b : well supplied or provided
: full of or accompanied by something specified —used with with fraught
with danger>
: causing or characterized by emotional distress or tension : uneasy fraught

Origin of FRAUGHT

chiefly Scottish
Middle English, from past participle of fraughten
First Known Use: 14th century


So there I am, in a nutshell. I feel fraught, complete with all of the implied anxiety and uneasiness that it seems to imply. Why?
I know it's at least partly because the boys have launched into 7th grade at a new school. It's a new school that has all sorts of strict dress codes to try to avoid gang insignia (why would they have all these restrictions if it were not a real problem?) and it's a public school with a mixed reputation. It's larger and wider-reaching than their sheltered little public elementary school was. I admit it all makes me uneasy; 7th grade was not a good time for me. I hadn't really given much thought before this to how I felt about my boys going to 7th grade, mainly because I failed to believe it would ever really happen. After all, 7th grade is entering teenager-dom, and I couldn't see my boys ever being that old. Maybe as an abstract concept, of course I hoped for them that the theoretical experience of going to Junior High would go much better for them than it did for my sisters and I, but honestly the whole idea skittered away in my brain like things do when you know they're unpleasant and hard and unavoidable. Denial is my friend.
So we sent them to a week of orientation, fun and games at the new school and all went well; they met many of their new teachers and learned the layout and routine. A good number of their old friends and classmates are going with them, so they have a support network of friends already in place. I admit I wondered what that would have been like for me at that age.
We had a bump in the road when they got their class schedules, because while Casey had been signed up for all of the honors classes, Riley had only been put into Honors English and not the honors science or math. He was puzzled at first, then increasingly upset, angry, resentful and defiant, vowing that he'd show them by excelling so much they'd have to advance him to the honors classes. Some calm reassurance that we'd straighten it out and simply talk to the office admin and see what was up helped some, though he had to compose himself before he could face going into the office. I went in anyway, asked about it and found out that the school didn't have the incoming 7th graders' Star test scores yet and that if I could bring my copy in then they'd redo his schedule after the principal approved it. Which I brought and he did, and later that day Riley was assigned all the honors classes without further fuss. Why Riley wasn't assigned those classes in the first place and Casey was is still a mystery, since their grades and test scores are well-nigh identical, but whatever. Problem solved. Though it really makes me wonder what happens in cases where the kid in question doesn't have a parent right there ready to problem solve in a calm and diplomatic manner. Riley's attitude shifted so quickly in that short space of time from happy and excited about 7th grade to crestfallen, angry, hurt and resentful that it was pretty scary to watch. Such a short trip from positive expectancy to... something considerably less healthy and happy. Once his schedule was fixed he went back to being happy and looking forward to it all. I was so glad I was there to act as his advocate, honestly. I felt like we were both lucky. 
I do realize that it might seem like not a big deal, but doesn't the beginning of Junior High set the stage for where you fit in for the rest of your time there? Which classes you're in, how your teachers and other kids see you, how you feel about yourself, it all kicks in within the first week or three. For Riley, it's always been a big part of his self-esteem to be one of the smartest, most intelligent and well read kids, and to have been put in the regular track classes was like a slap in the face. For now, in Junior High, he'll need all the shreds of self esteem he can hang onto.
First day of full classes (after missing the first half day of school due to fevers and sickness) happened and all was well; both boys pronounced their first day as 'awesome'. Which when you think about it is pretty high praise from 12 year-olds who try to be cool. They rode their bikes to school, which is pretty darn cool for me after having to drive them every day to their elementary school. 
Riley is (almost always) the challenging kid. He starts slow in the morning, rarely has his act together, needs prodding and reminders and all that. He drives all the rest of us crazy. I got into a huge fight with Paul this morning about how best to get Riley to move and get his stuff done in the morning; Paul's approach is to 'hurry up, panic' at Riley, and (when I can muster the patience) I am more of the 'remind him, get him back on task (again)' mode, which admittedly takes more time. I figure he needs more time in the morning, and we're still ironing out the kinks in the new morning school routine. Riley's going to have to get up even earlier, honestly, because I can't stand the 'panic mode' that Paul pulls out and I can't believe it helps Riley either. By the time we got the boys off to school on their bikes I was madder than a cat dunked in wet mud and ready to rip the limbs off of anyone stupid enough to get within reach. Bad way to start the day, filled with anxiety and panic and madmadmad. Bah.
Those annoying critical voices in my head tell me: We are Supposed to have Riley take charge and get himself together in the mornings and be responsible for himself. We're Not Doing Him Any Favors by coddling him and doing stuff for him and we're supposed to Let Him Fail So He Can Learn From His Mistakes and blahblahblah. And right now, I say, bite me. The kid is starting 7th grade and he hasn't yet worked out a way to get ready in the morning that works well for him. We had it pretty well down last year and he was pretty good at it on his own, given enough time and such, so I'm sure he will get better at this. But in the meanwhile we need to work out the kinks and figure out what works and what doesn't.
It'd be nice to feel on top of all the stupid everyday minutiae that the kids and parents are supposed to deal with for school, to feel confident that we are dealing with all of it in a mature and capable manner (ha). It'd be great if school and work weren't so frenetic and pressure-filled. To know that the kids will emerge from the pressure-cooker chaos and eventually become capable, coping adults. I wish I felt like a capable, coping adult, honestly.

It'd be nice to know I was doing a decent job of this whole crazy parenting thing and not feel like a flailing, screaming muppet.

I feel so fraught with it all.


Monday, July 22, 2013

The Pink Ribbon Stuff.

Terri found this thought-provoking article on breast cancer in the NY Times back in April: Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer. I read it and thought about it all and couldn't really bring myself to talk about it then. It's a long article and seems well-researched, and it brought up all sorts of issues for me. One of the things the article discusses is that insurance approval and funding for early mammogram screening has been cut back, and how that has caused some furor and finger pointing. Will fewer mammograms in the future for younger women lead to a decrease in early detection, and a higher rate of deaths due to breast cancer? Whether the concern is founded or not, it brings up legitimate fears among people that we will miss some cases that might have been caught early.

What's early enough? Mine was caught early, but whether it was early enough remains to be seen; as several women have said, you only know that when you find out that something else is going to kill you. Gallows humor. I think that mammograms are very important for women who have gone through pregnancy, because of all the vast changes a woman's body goes through. Some of those changes in cell structure and function are so similar in some ways to the way cancer cells can morph and change. It seems likely that some of those cellular changes can go wonky at that point or remain morphogenic and can lead to future cancer cells proliferating in the parts of a woman's body most affected by pregnancy, such as the breasts. Breastfeeding causes enormous changes in the breast tissues. Nobody seems to talk much about that aspect, or to feel that a major bodily change like having a baby is as important a change as advancing age in a woman's body. You hear about statistics tallying up cases of breast cancer correlated with age, but not with whether a woman has been pregnant.
One of the questions being asked is whether mammograms are even very useful for early detection. My mother's breast cancer was picked up by a mammogram; she ended up having a mastectomy and she considers that the mammogram at that crucial point very probably saved her life. She was in her early 60's at that point.
I should pause here and warn that I'm going to get blunt and graphic with medical descriptions, so if you're squeamish you may want to go elsewhere at this point.

I've had mammograms, but I've had very mixed luck with them. A mammogram detected a suspicious lump on my left side and based on that, a lumpectomy was performed. It was a painful procedure and left me with a significant scar on that side. No cancer cells were found, so in that sense I was very probably one of those women the article talks about as having an unnecessary procedure based on a mammogram. Was it justified based on the risk that the suspicious lump might have gone rogue at some point in the future? It's hard to know, really. I kept doing mammograms just in case, but they didn't reveal anything more, except that I had a lot of lumps of dense tissue which could have been suspicious and annoyed the mammogram techs no end, but probably were nothing to worry about.

A couple of years later, I developed an infected cyst on my right side. I had a rather clueless friend at the time make a joke about having a zit, not understanding that it was actually very serious, and I didn't even bother to explain; it was too painful and humiliating, really, especially given her underlying assumption that I was whinging about a very silly, minor thing. The infection was probably in a milk duct, deep inside the tissue. It was painful and potentially dangerous in that the infection eventually would have spread to my entire system, and at that point it would have overwhelmed my immune system. Nothing the doctor tried got rid of it, including painful procedures with large needles to try to drain it. Eventually it led to surgery to 'clean it all out' and a tissue sample was taken as part of that surgical procedure. The tissue sample was sent to the lab and revealed cancerous cells after the surgery was done.
I went though a barbaric healing period after the surgery. I hesitate to go into this; I don't talk about it much. It involved twice daily changing of gauze dressings which were forcibly pushed and packed 4 or 5 inches inside my breast, in up against my chest wall, very deep within the breast tissue. The dressings were then pulled out and replaced with fresh gauze, to let the wound heal slowly 'from the inside out'. I needed help to change the dressings for several months, as it's very hard to properly do such a thing to your own chest when it goes that deep, at that particular angle.

 At first we went to the surgeon's office for the dressing changes, then he taught Paul to do it, and eventually, much later on, I was able to do it for myself. It became a rather nightmarish routine to be endured, rolling up a hand towel, clamping it between my teeth, and not screaming when Paul had to change the dressings. I remember growling instead. We did this behind closed doors and tried our best not to let the boys hear what was going on, since they were preschool age at the time. The fact that Paul had to do this for me, and we were enduring the whole harrowing experience along with all of the fears attached to that dread 'cancer' aspect, certainly taught us about some of the 'for worse' aspects of being married. This twice daily packing process went on for three months, while the wound gradually healed to shallower depths until I was finally ultimately left with a permanent large dent, a lurid permanently red-streaked scar and significant, painful scar tissue extending deep inside what was left of that breast. It's not pretty, and it never will be.
After the healing process I then went though radiation for 6 weeks, and the radiation probably was the cause of damage to my kidney function; fortunately my kidneys did gradually recover over time. I also went on Tamoxifen for 5 years, a drug which may help prevent recurrence of breast cancer. For me, Tamoxifen left me perpetually exhausted and drained, and I was told by my oncologist that I was tolerating the drug very well. Thankfully, I'm off of the drug now, and I did notice that the perpetual tiredness retreated. A lot.

I am supposed to go for bi-annual mammograms and MRI's. Every time I go for a mammogram they tell me irritably that they can't see through all the scar tissue and they try changing the angles, compressing the machine further to squish all the scar tissue flatter, take more pictures, and finally they give up and resort to an ultrasound like they use on pregnant ladies, because the mammogram cannot distinguish what might be dangerous lumps through all the other dense lumps of scar tissue I carry around with me. I have lost all faith in a mammogram's power to detect anything meaningful in my case. We have to fight with insurance to get an MRI approved every time, because it isn't considered necessary or approved for breast cancer screening. I have just about given up on the whole screening process, to be honest, though I get told by various family members (and you know who you are) that I'm being stupid and foolish and shouldn't let humiliation and the fact that it's a painful process stop me. I think I'd be more willing to tolerate the whole circus if I had any faith that it would accomplish anything. It's been seven years now since those cancer cells were identified.
Anyway. We've all been bombarded by the Pink. Pink ribbons, pink products, pink branding, pinkpinkpink. I have to admit that the Komen people have done a brilliant job of branding pink as breast cancer and making nearly everybody on the planet aware that pink has something to do with breast cancer and guilt and money and happyhappy feel good events to raise more money. Where the money actually goes I'm not too clear about, though others have raised questions about that. I understand that charities need to raise funds for advertising and promotion and it takes money to raise money, I get that. I don't begrudge that unless the vast majority of money raised is going back into the endless cycle of raising more money rather than to the actual cause they're supposed to be raising the money for. I can't pretend to understand how they need to allocate the money they raise.

I do think it's a good thing to make people talk about the disease, actually. Except that the various charities don't really talk about it. They proudly show happy healthy people wearing pink, running for the cause; some show boobs as a way to get eyeballs to look and give money; people will pay to see boobs, so why not exploit women's bodies in order to raise funds 'for a good cause'? End justifies the means, right? Save the ta-ta's and all that. Pay money to look at healthy happy boobs and we'll donate the money to breast cancer research. I get irritated with it all. I know, not a big surprise to anyone who knows me.

Even with the best of the charities, happy smiling survivors or healthy friends and family are usually featured. None of those charities talk about the women who have metastasized cancer, where the breast cancer spread and they know they will die from it. They are the unseen, unspoken-of ones that really need help, but they don't supply a feel-good story of beating the odds. It doesn't make them any less worthy of attention, but let's be blunt: showing pretty, healthy, perky breasts will raise more money than haggard sick women who have lost their breasts and all of their hair and who are certainly going to die, and who scare the shit out of anyone who comes near them. The ugly truth is that breast cancer isn't smiling and  pretty and pink, but then no form of cancer is, and there are so many different kinds of cancer that kill people.
People die of all sorts of cancers, not just breast cancer. I can't help but feel it's a mistake to direct all the money just towards specific cancers; breast cancer in and of itself isn't necessarily what's killing women; it kills when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body. There's so much focus on catching or preventing that early start in the breast that it deflects attention from the other aspects, and if there was more attention paid to the whole body, the whole person, all the cancers that occur, surely there would be a better understanding of what was happening at all of the stages, all of the cancers, all of the places to catch it and prevent it. I don't give money to breast cancer charities. I've lost friends and family to lots of types of cancers, and all of those cancers are worthy of research and prevention and early detection.

For the unseen, the unspoken of, the ones with 'terminal' stamped on their foreheads, there are some hospice places, people who care, but those services don't get the big bucks, they don't get the attention, and for a family facing such a devastating diagnosis, even finding, let alone qualifying for the resources to help them get through their coming storm is difficult and daunting and overwhelming. Hospice care doesn't get the big bucks, the marathons, the pink ribbon treatment.

You have to search hard to find actual practical help out there, whereas the Pink feel-good campaigns are in all of our faces, raising their multi-millions. I'm guessing that the Pinks generally don't help out with health care costs, the chemo costs, or hospice care, much less counseling services for families who desperately need some help coping. There is a very serious need for services that can act as advocates and resource guides for families and patients who are traveling that desperate road.There are some out there, but they tend to be small and locally funded and with limited resources. They don't get big press.

I find myself wishing that some of that feel-good pink money was going to help those unglamorous people with terminal cancer to cope with what is left of their lives, and to help their families to cope with their coming loss, and the aftermath and lingering loss, the changes due to losing a partner, a parent, the changes in economic means due to losing income and all  the rest of it. When the big pink ribbon campaigns start spending some of their money on those sorts of services, then I'll wear a pink ribbon with pride. Until then, not so much.

Thursday, May 09, 2013


What is with all of the bullying? There seems to be a lot of it going on in the media, in politics, all around us. Adults in positions of power are doing and saying the most appalling things. It really makes you wonder what happened when they were kids. Where does that come from? Why didn't they learn better early on?

The scale of things I see and deal with on a day to day basis is much smaller and much more personal. Bullying at school, sporting events. When does a kid go from being considered a nice child to being labelled as a bully? Things at school and in sports have brought it up lately, and I find myself trying not to take sides in various incidents. But let's get real, it's impossible not to take sides when your own kids are involved. If one of my guys is wronged I can usually go and resolve things in a civil way (after ranting angrily in private), but I will overcome my normal shyness to go stick up for my boys. Mama tiger is in there, believe me. I try to maintain an open mind and I'm not afraid to admit when one of my guys has done something wrong and I actually appreciate the outside reinforcement from other adults and people who have influence with my kids about the right way to behave and treat others. There have been  incidents over the last 12 years when I wasn't actually there when something happened and others stepped up and intervened, or told me about things that needed addressing, and it's all good. My kids are not perfect little angels; no kids are. It takes a good village to raise a good person. Finding your village is very challenging in this complex world we live in, but we are fortunate to have a great community surrounding our guys.
One of the things that troubles me, though, is the way we tend to label kids. There have been incidents where a kid was 'bullied' and other kids were punished, and then it turned out that the kid getting bullied wasn't blameless and had his own history of bullying. It's a complex problem, and I know that the teachers and coaches and parents have a hard time keeping things fair and keeping order in the ranks. My guys know they can come to me or Paul and tell us things that happen and they have the self-confidence to stand up for themselves, so when it has happened to them they know they have us standing with them, and that there will be consequences if they've done wrong, but they aren't afraid to tell us the truth, at least.
So there's this kid. He's what we would (politically incorrectly) call a weird kid, where there's just something not right there, though he's in regular school, and he has no convenient label put on him to explain or excuse his oddness, or help others with ways to handle him. But he's always been 'off', and thus always been a target to the other kids, from the beginning of school. This kid has serious problems fitting in with the other kids; they don't like him, they find him annoying, they find him tasteless and offensive and disgusting. I've heard this from numerous sources, mind you; it's pretty universal among their grade. It hasn't gotten better, and as these things tend to go, it's getting worse as they all head at breakneck speed towards the dreaded junior high years. He's really one of the kids who is a constant target for a few of the other kids who are what I would call 'career bullies' who constantly pull crap and then skillfully try to turn things around when the adults show up, blaming other kids and saying they were the bullied one; some of them are seriously mean and scary and all of the kids in their grade know to avoid them like the plague. Those kids may really be the ones to be seriously worried about, but they're a whole other discussion.

But this kid is different. He has no friends, though he's not malicious; he didn't used to be mean. But lately, he's been doing things that seem to indicate that he's angry and frustrated and not surprisingly, he hates the way things are for him. And so an incident occurred and several boys were accused of bullying him. This is nothing new, mind you, it happens with some regularity despite the school officials' massive efforts to crack down on any bullying with strict punishments, educational efforts about it all and counseling groups and other measures. They are a good school that way, with a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying; they really try. But this kid is always getting bullied. So an incident occurred with Casey there, and it turned out that he had a hand in teasing the odd kid. There were taunting words exchanged, though there was no physical violence in the actual teasing part of the whole thing. Except as it turned out, the kid getting bullied may have triggered the incident by physically smacking the other kids too hard in the game they were playing. He had insisted on joining their game even though he wasn't welcome, and then got physically rough during the game and was hitting them and wouldn't stop, and pissed them all off and then the name calling started. And Casey was a name caller, mad and angry and fed up. And he got in a right lot of trouble for it, with a note sent home and parents and teachers and such all involved.
So I heard the story first, in bits, from Casey, and then more the next day, then more the day after. The interesting thing was that he was wracked with guilt for having called a name in the first place, and then for not having owned up to doing it right away; he claimed it was this thing where he said a word under his breath and wasn't sure anybody else heard it until later when all the kids involved were being interrogated and accusations started flying thick and fast and the truth was up for grabs. Once accused of saying a bad word he owned up and admitted it and then was in serious trouble for not coming forward and admitting it in the first place, even though he got accused of some other things he didn't actually do and the teller later recanted. It was all quite muddled and wasn't handled particularly well by the authority in charge.
So he couldn't sleep and was upset and said he felt so awful for name-calling in the first place, as well as realizing he would have been better off admitting it in the first place rather than keeping mum about part of his own role in the debacle. He did feel it was unfair to be falsely accused by other kids and have adults just unilaterally decide based on the accusations flying around that he was a 'bad kid'. I was so relieved that he felt awful about his part in the whole thing, honestly. We talked about it all and sorted out some truths and what was fair and unfair and what he knew to be true about himself, and he actually did some hard self-examination to see how he felt about what he'd really actually done, and to move through just being upset at being falsely accused of other things and how unjust that felt. Sorting out the whole confused mess in his own mind seemed to help him figure out where he stood and how he felt about the various aspects of it all.
I asked him to go ahead and let himself really deeply feel this awfulness he was going through and remember it and imprint it deep inside so that the next time something like this happened, he'd remember how this felt and maybe it would help him not to do something like it again. I know for myself that having once teased someone cruelly, I hated the way it made me feel and I've tried never to do it again, and that was in junior high. It had a lasting impact on me, and I have to hope this will have an impact on him. I could relate to how he felt, and we talked about it all.

It's a small incident in the overall view of things, really, and it happened a while back, so it's all blown over now, with punishments and consequences and whatnot, and Casey's standing as a reasonable kid who means well is re-established among the school authorities. But  for him there were a number of important parts to consider about that incident. One was that Casey had never been accused of being a bully before; in the past he's been a kid who was bullied by the mean kids, so he wasn't used to being on the 'bad guy' side of the whole issue. He really didn't like being a bad guy, or being labelled as a bad guy, one bit. And that I find very encouraging, though I was appalled at his part in the whole thing. He also experienced first-hand just how fragile and precious having a good reputation is; the speed and ferocity with which he was publicly accused and judged by the main adult at the scene simply on the basis of what other kids were saying was very frightening to him. And he may have been judged harshly and prematurely, but he certainly felt immediate consequences for his actions; he knew with certainty that he didn't want to ever be in that situation ever again. It was one of those incidents in life where, if you can learn from it, you gain experience with your own dark side and learn to control it a bit better.
The kid who was bullied may have triggered the incident with his inappropriate slapping behavior, but he wasn't of course blamed for it at all. He did not come forward and complain about what happened; his younger siblings did, and then the accusations among all of the kids involved started flying fast and free. And while it's very admirable that the siblings would stand up for him, it's something to notice and question that he would not come forward himself and say what really happened. He did not stand up for himself, ever; he did not tell the entire truth about what happened, and he did not correct the other kids who were lying about various aspects. Whether he felt it was futile, or he felt to blame, or was too scared or humiliated or what is unknown. But he was acting angry and frustrated before and during the incident and it's all troubling. All the focus was on the kids who turned on him and bullied him, and perhaps that's appropriate or to be expected because it's already such a set pattern that he is the one who gets tormented. The ones who tormented him did get in trouble and face consequences, but the deeper issues he must be facing were not, to my knowledge, addressed in any way that would actually help him in the future. The way this particular incident was handled may have helped Casey learn from it, but I seriously doubt that the kid in the middle of it learned anything new and helpful from it; it was just another in a long string of incidents he's had to endure, and it won't be the last.

This whole thing was also an eye-opener for me, as a parent on the other side of the bullying this time; having one of my kids involved in an incident really made me look at it all from a different perspective. I know that my kid isn't a natural bully and this isn't usual behavior for him, so having him suddenly angrily and loudly accused publicly by the authority in charge, based solely on other kids' panicky accusations, was shocking and seemed premature and inappropriate, though perhaps the idea was to make a fearful example of him for the rest of the kids. He's since managed to redeem himself at school and at home, so that's good, but he also had several reasonable, supportive adults at school and at home who were on his side, who believed in him, to help him deal with the fallout, and many kids don't. That 'bully' label creates an expectation, and if there are further mis-handlings or non-handlings (and possibly denial by the parents), that label gets stronger and harder to erase, and it's easy to see where that would lead.

I also have to ask myself what should have been handled differently for the kid who was bullied and what hasn't been handled well in the past for that pattern of being bullied to be so long and well established. What can be done for the odd kid? Is just punishing and admonishing the kids who cat-called enough? What does that actually do for the kid who was bullied, aside from causing more of a rift and more resentment and setting him apart even further? Is there a better answer?
I was bullied enough when I was a kid to have concluded that some kids are just bone-deep mean right from the get-go and they get enjoyment from tormenting other kids and they will go out of their way to find their chosen victims. I never knew why they picked me or my sister, but they unerringly found us. In my own case, most of the time I said nothing about it to anyone because I figured it wouldn't do any good, and I found it all incredibly humiliating. I felt ashamed on so many levels: ashamed for being  a target, a weirdo who didn't fit in; ashamed that maybe all the cruel things they said about me might be true. I was angry and also very ashamed that I didn't have the courage to stand up for myself against the bullies; I felt powerless to do so. I was also a kid who was shouted at and knocked around at home, though, so the feelings of powerlessness had very early roots. For me it was an endurance test; like the 'it gets better' messages say, it got better. Time and distance and counseling and a lot support from friends and family all helped. Having 'victim' stamped on your forehead is not a simple or easy fix. I have to hope this kid can endure and find some support to get through the years to come.
I really feel for the parents who have sensitive kids who get teased like I was; nobody deserves to be teased and humiliated, and it's heartbreaking as a parent to see your child suffering. The anger at the mean kids and the situation, as well as the environment that engenders it, is hard to deal with. What are you supposed to do? I dealt with this particular instance as best I could as a parent, from the other side of the coin this time, and I have to hope it's something that will help my kid in the future on how to deal with bullying from both sides.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Aging Gracelessly

Yep, definitely.
Life has been very busy with boy sports and school stuff and other obligations that we've taken on for various reasons. Like so we can eat, pay bills, let the boys do sports, those sorts of mundanities.

I have had a bad migraine for the last three days. I haven't been having them as often as I was for quite a while, and while I enjoyed the respite, somehow these things always surprise me again with their intensity of pain. Medications don't touch them, and I just endure through them. As they wear on it just saps my will to live and everyday things start slipping.

It just makes it all harder; you know, dishes, washing clothes, that sort of everyday chore that never really ends. I find if I force myself to do them when I'm in pain it can have a good effect; I end up feeling like I'm fighting back entropy, or something. But there are times like this weekend when it just is too much and it doesn't get done, and once the headache finally, finally passes I'm left exhausted and with a sinkful of dirty dishes and mountains of laundry to face... Which I am procrastinating on dealing with.
I know, make the boys do it all. Easy to say, but enforcing it can be more work and effort than just doing the chore in the first place and when I have a head that bad, it's all beyond me.

The good thing is, I'm not on any medications now. I had reason to go back through some of my old photos recently, and re-read my comments on the set of photos I kept while I was going through radiation a number of years ago. 
You can go look if you haven't heard or seen them before and you're interested. I should warn you that it's possibly triggery for anybody who's dealt with cancer and such. I had it pretty easy, really. And it made me realize again that I'm very lucky to be alive.

There are other things that I've gone through too, that make me appreciate life and simple things, like being able to walk. After breaking my leg and not being able to walk on it at all for three months or more, stepping up or down a simple curb has become a recurring silent miracle that I notice and rejoice in, even after 5 years. Gad, I broke my leg five years ago this spring. And my leg will never be the same again, certainly, but it's functional and gets me around.
I'm finding this whole aging thing has become kind of an accumulation of physical and emotional landmarks of things I've gone through, periods in my life. Breaking my elbows left me a wire and scars. I had twins; that left a number of indelible marks on my body; breaking my leg left some serious hardware inside the leg and an inability to kneel on it. There are others, of course. I'm going gray, I'm getting wrinkles and certainly have gotten fatter. The physical aspects feel like a collection of souvenirs from trips or something, but even harder to work through and throw away if you get tired of them than the emotional baggage that gets lugged around along the way.

But. I will admit that the constant feeling I've had for the last decade or so, that I could die sooner rather than later, that I needed to savor every moment, has abated somewhat. It turns out that it's really hard to maintain that intensity all of the time, for years, when you're dealing with the everyday minutiae of kids and regular life.

There's a secret that I've been learning through various life milestones: everyday life just keeps going. It's probably most noticeable when you have a loved one die; there's that weird disconnected feeling where life continues swirling on around you even though this huge and permanently life-altering event has happened. People still go shopping, laundry still needs doing. The cats still need to be fed, the bills still come due, the dishes still need washing. It's weird the way it all keeps happening even when you feel like your world has shattered.
I've tried to come to grips with that over the years in various ways; I started documenting things more, I will always try to savor the fleeting moments as they happen. Some things become more precious, like seeing old friends again, or watching the boys as they grow and develop into older people. You know, things that you come to realize are important and likely won't happen again, at least not in the same way.
Casey may make the Men's Gymnastics Regionals again in the coming years, but he'll only be this age, this particular flavor of goofy once.

If nothing else, I've begun to realize that sometimes the everyday life stuff that wears you down may be what keeps you going when things get bad. Whether it's because you feel like you have no choice or other people are depending on you or whatnot, the mundane bits will always be there, swirling around even when life feels totally surreal.
And sometimes the everyday things like neon orange shoes are exciting enough to a boy to indelibly imprint themselves into the mental souvenir stash. He's already wearing these shoes out, and there will never be another pair just like them, but he loves them with a passion for life that's pretty infectious. It all drives me crazy at times, especially with a migraine, but it also is what pulls me through it to the other side.
Off to wash some dishes now.