#MeToo: what now? (and four examples from my mundane life)

#MeToo

#MeToo

I had not yet chimed in on the #MeToo movement. I am not sure my experience adds to the discourse. It is a lot to share for someone like me, as run-of-the-mill as I feel like my experience has been.  Mostly, I have been mulling over what precisely I think about the movement.

There are clear examples of outrageous behavior that require improved accountability- the college student who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, for example. Someone being drugged and waking up to a nightmare.  In addition, though,there are also ambiguous encounters every day between young adults who are figuring out their approach to sex and to relationships. Who are experimenting with drinking, perhaps, or with drugs. Learning where their boundaries are.

Speaking as a mother of a college age boy, I do hope we remember those early and confusing days as we move toward better understanding each other. It takes a long time to master the language of intimacy. We give and receive mixed signals while we learn.

Setting aside force, which is never okay, there is also a learning curve when it comes to the difference between flirtation and seduction. Persuasion and coercion. What we’re comfortable with and what feels like violation. I’ve been married for over twenty years, but that was not a clearcut and straightforward journey, as I recall.

 

Anger feeds anger.

The tone of some of this wave of #MeToo feels like it may unintentionally swamp the need for frequent acceptance of the shortcomings of our life partners. It may replace that necessary understanding with reasonable, righteous, yet damaging anger. I wonder what this current outrage might do to the concept of lifelong relationships.

I am fortunate to be in a long-term, healthy relationship, however. If he demeaned me, insulted me, or hurt me, that would devastate me.  The balance with which I write this would disappear.

I would not presume to speak to the role of forgiveness in abusive relationships. I’ve written about the tragic connection between childhood abuse and its likely effect on a convicted adult abuser.  I implore anyone who’s being demeaned or threatened to get counseling and get to safety.

Not minimizing the harm done.

This may sound like I am minimizing the toll sexual harassment and sexual assault take on us as society. It may seem like I am trying to excuse it. I definitely am not.

I am emphasizing the need for us to forgive our loved ones when they let us down – not when they assault, demean, belittle or abuse us – but when our relationships momentarily derail. When their – or our – behavior is less than it could be. Within healthy limits. When a lapse is a forgivable event, not an abusive trend.

It is not my place to set that boundary for anyone else. It’s imperative to be vigilant about what healthy limits are. To protect and value ourselves. Many men are not aware how pervasive the belittling is that can lead us to undervalue ourselves or our gender. It’s difficult to hear if you’re not female.

Be an imperfect but necessary example.

So, I am speaking up. We need to teach our daughters, our friends, and anyone we influence how to value themselves. How to respond to harassment. How to guard against abuse. We need to immunize them against feeling powerless. That’s not solved by policy. although thoughtful laws about harassment and sexual assault are essential. Confidence, appropriate response and self-defense are taught, modeled, and hopefully absorbed by future generations.

Tell your #MeToo story. Here is mine.

So, with that in mind, of course, #MeToo. Harassment. #MeToo. Assault. #MeToo. Here are four examples from my life.

#MeToo: the socially inept harasser

Some encounters and offenders are simply unpleasant, inconsequential gnats who should not affect one’s otherwise happy life. For example: after college and before graduate school, I worked as a waitress in addition to my day job to better make ends meet. A guy who was a regular customer came in one night and had dinner. At the end of his meal, he said, “Will you come home with me?” I laughed and said, “Thanks, but no.” He said, “You might as well. I’m just going to go home and jack off thinking about you. So, why not come along?” I looked at him with irritated disgust and said, “And that’s why you’ll probably always eat dinner alone.”

That guy owns his abysmal, shameful, repulsive behavior. He does not deserve to have any effect on my life except to be justifiably mocked for behaving in such a gross way. It did not cross my mind I was in any way at fault. This was not in any way my problem. I thought what a sad little man he was to say such awful things to someone he barely knew.

#MeToo: the mentally ill harasser

Some harassment is scary, unpleasant, even dangerous, and a consequence of that person’s significant issues, such as mental illness. When I was in graduate school, I was followed through a drugstore by a homeless man who fondled himself while mouthing obscenities.

The security camera would have shown me hotfooting it through the pharmacy area looking for nasal spray at a frantic pace while throwing exasperated looks back at the foulmouthed irritant. Perhaps I should have been afraid. I was not. I was in a well-lit store surrounded by (regrettably oblivious) employees. Had I been worried, I would have asked for help.

Encountering someone like him was a not uncommon occurrence in New Orleans in the 90s, where people living on the street were sometimes in various states of intoxication or mental distress. In my mind, he was not a threat. He was a sadness.

At the time, I did not think of his action as harassment. I thought of it as a lack of self-control on his part, a blindness to boundaries brought on by whatever demons he faced. It did not cross my mind I was at fault in any way for his behavior. I was clear that in his mind, I was vaguely female and that sufficed for whatever odd script he was following in his head.

I did not think about other women being frightened of him. I thought about him needing medication. I thought about getting home. I may have been wrong to respond like that. I probably should have tried to get him help.

#MeToo: harassment in the workplace

Then there are the men who love power and don’t much like or respect women. A CEO at a company where I worked in the 90s hosted regular marketing offsites to report on what worked and did not and strategize on what we planned to do next.

He had a private plane and flew many of us to and from these meetings. The marketing managers were primarily women. Upon our return from one offsite, he walked up to us as we were lined up to leave and gave each of us a kiss. On the lips.

I’m no shrinking violet. Yet I let it happen. Words cannot express how repellent that man was, and still is, to me. But putting my job on the line by calling out his behavior was a risk/return ratio that, at that time, was not in my favor. Each of us knew he did that because he could. Not because he was attracted to any of us. It was an impulse, completely impersonal and completely about him. A casual expression of what he thought of, were he given to introspection or analysis, as dominance.

It never happened again. None of us would have let the opportunity present itself. That’s how women used to handle situations like that. They might happen once, but we would be intrepid about making sure they could not again.

I definitely mishandled that incident. It is obviously not enough to have avoided being in the situation again. Because a guy like that was not just saying his desires were more important than his employees. He was also saying that women are inferior. Less powerful.

My colleagues and I let that perception remain. I knew I could go somewhere else, continue my career trajectory, and finesse any future encounters like that one. That’s precisely what I did.

But people like him should not be in charge of companies. Unfortunately, narcissists can be really good at building companies to a certain level, so they’re rampant in upper management.

#MeToo: the assault

Then, there is assault. A young man broke into my apartment in New Orleans when I was in graduate school. I awoke to him standing over me, telling me he had a gun and he was going to rape me, then kill me.

I was lucky. The calculus in that situation went thusly. “I’d rather be dead than be raped by this man.”

So, I asked to see his gun. He told me to shut up. I repeated, “Show me your gun.” He said “No.” I said, “You don’t have a gun.”

Driven by adrenaline, I jumped up, picked him up and held him against the wall. It turns out the powerful, menacing shadow in the middle-of-the-night darkness was actually a skinny teenager, probably 110 pounds dripping wet, who’d likely taken something to give himself courage he should not have had.

Unfortunately, I lived by myself, though. Once he was up against the wall, I had nowhere to put him. So we scrambled and scuffled toward my front door of my small apartment, and he pushed the screen door open and escaped.

I called the police, then woke my neighbors up. The 90s New Orleans police were not particularly sympathetic. They actually laughed and told me “You should have beat the shit out of him.”

He and his buddies came back that night, slowly driving up and down the street. In the early morning hours, they slashed my neighbor’s tires.The police did not come back. They were a busy bunch, and, as I’d seen, rather indifferent.

So, I moved to Metairie ten or so miles away, to a secure apartment complex. I finished my time at Tulane commuting instead of walking.

#MeToo: the consequences

That incident changed me. I reflexively lock my doors now. I know how to use a handgun. I am wary.

But I am not afraid. I was lucky because the violence I encountered was not overpowering enough to rise to a level I could not overcome. Thousands of women have endured so much worse.

I was also lucky because my parents raised me to assume I could resolve whatever difficulty I encountered. To not to be afraid. To defend myself. To overcome. To always be thinking about solving the problem.

To avoid situations that put me at needless risk – advice I did not always follow when younger, I’m afraid. Many of us have to learn common sense.

Even with that confidence and eventual common sense, though, the main reason I am not afraid is because I have not yet encountered a situation I could not resolve. That is just the luck of the draw. Which is why #MeToo is important.

Great parents and subsequent good judgment provide tools for a woman’s defenses and her ability to assess whatever happens to her from a healthy perspective.. They do not, however, stop sexual violence.  They do not stop sexual harassment.

We need to address the impetus that drives some men to act this way. (And some women – I have seen the men saying #MeToo.)

Men, wonderful men

I’ll close this by noting that I respect and adore men. I treasure the deep connections that are my most sacred relationships in addition to my bond with my mother: that of husband and wife, son and mother, daughter and father, brother and sister. I have spent my life surrounded by extraordinary men.

Old-fashioned strength, protectiveness, gallantry are honorable and precious things. #IHearYou – they say, and they really do hear us. They listen. We should not throw them out because we want to get rid of the toxic behavior of violent men. The puerile behavior of immature men. The predatory behavior of sociopathic men.

The dance between the sexes is an essential treasure worth preserving as well. The subtle, sensual mutual admiration that is flirtation at its best: respectful, mischievous, complimentary and harmlessly entertaining. It is an art worth keeping.

We can have all of that and still fix this. So, with a focus on solving the problem in addition to just calling out the scope of it, and with an abundance of love and respect for the fineness of the men and women in my life – #MeToo.

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Hope your Father’s Day is just ducky

GranDad on his Father's Day duck

GranDad on his Father’s Day duck

Making ducks for Father’s Day

When my son was a (very verbal) toddler, he noticed that flatulence sounded like a duck quacking. One day, his grandfather was umm, feeling gassy, and did what comes naturally. Nic said loudly and with amusement, “GranDad, you made a duck!” My dad the linguist was enchanted by the phrase, and a lifelong silly inside family joke was born.

A Mardi Gras duck mask purchased by my mischievous father. celebrated on this Father's Day

Sometimes, the joke was a mask at Mardi Gras.

A duck jigsaw puzzle I made, which would make a great Father's Day gift.

Sometimes, it showed up in other ways, such as this duck-themed jigsaw puzzle I made. But it’s been a running joke for well over a decade.

Last month, we visited our little place on Fowl River that’s close to where my parents live in Alabama and everything broke – the air conditioner, the boat, the refrigerator, the car, the air mattress. Dad did everything he could to help us fix it all, as he always does.

We knew he’d check the place after we left, especially after all the disasters. So, we bought a seven foot inflatable duck we saw at Walmart. The morning we departed, we inflated the creature, wrote Dad a Father’s Day card, and left it waiting for him in the living room.

Ever practical, he says he is going to use it for naps.

Dad’s lasting influence

I love you, Dad. Everyone says they have the best dad there is. All I know is that my horizons are limitless because I grew up with a dad who

  • * Assured me I could do anything I set my mind to and
  • * Encouraged my brother and me equally at a time when that equal opportunity thinking was not necessarily the norm.

My father, my role model

Aside from his sense of mischief, scatological or otherwise, my father is a great role model because he

  • * Loves to learn all things, whether poetry, science, math, history or what have you;
  • * Shows me that a road trip is as much about the journey as the destination
  • * Demonstrated by his lifelong love affair with my mother that marrying someone who challenges me, lights me up, and I love with all my heart is the only reason to get married.
  • * Defines success as a balanced, happy life that includes family time; interesting career and life experiences and accomplishments; financial security; a wide circle of friends and acquaintances; being of quiet help to others; and ever-evolving new interests.

Dad, you also suggested – more than once – I be selective and avoid drama. Maybe not overshare. I’m still working on those .

I sure love you, Dad.

Happy Father’s Day to you and all the dads out there who occupy the same special place in their children’s heart that you do.Those of us with great fathers never lose our (not inconsiderable) smidgen of hero worship. It’s a unique and irreplaceable intersection of love, fun and joy, tinged with more than a little childish awe.

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In honor of National Tater(s) Day

In honor of National Tater(s) Day

In honor of National Taters Day, here’s something I wrote about  our our beloved Jack Russell terrier, Tater when he passed away a few years ago.  Anyone who’s ever loved a dog may recognize the bittersweet mixture of sorrow and gratitude I felt when he died after sharing eighteen splendid years with us.

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I see good people

I see good people

Cole Sear: I see dead people.
Malcolm Crowe: In your dreams?
[Cole shakes his head no]
Malcolm Crowe: While you’re awake?
[Cole nods]
Malcolm Crowe: How often do you see them?
Cole Sear: All the time. They’re everywhere. The Sixth Sense (1999)

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Mother love

Each day is a little life: every waking and rising a little birth, every fresh morning a little youth, every going to rest and sleep a little death. ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

Today, one of our cashmere goats gave birth to a tiny, new and utterly perfect kid. I helped, after we determined it looked like it was breech. I took those little hooves in my clumsy hands and pulled carefully, gently and consistently as the mama strained and bleated until the little one emerged.

The birth of our kid

The birth of our kid

Once out, she was not feet first. Rather, she entered the world in a perfect pike position, nose almost touching her ankles. We should name her Greg Louganis.

My beloved husband asked me later if goat midwifing was on my bucket list and my answer was no. That’s an incomplete response. It wasn’t on my bucket list because I had no idea how amazing it would be to help another mama guide her new little one into the world. Seeing the miracle of  a living, breathing, alert little soul emerge was an unasked-for, now treasured, privilege. It evoked a reverence that came from some timeless place within me.

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In support of school choice

Every child should have the chance to attend the school that best encourages their particular gifts. Period.

Every child should have the chance to attend the school that best encourages their particular gifts. Period.

Today, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled against the proposed school voucher program here in Douglas County. This is a shame, particularly because the ruling focuses on upholding something called the Blaine Amendment, a piece of religious bigotry found in state constitutions dating back to the Grant administration in the 1870s. Its original intent was to keep poverty-stricken Catholics out of the public school system and simultaneously deprive them of any public assistance to set up their own parochial schools. We now link it to the Establishment clause, the separation of church and state, in the Constitution. But Blaine Amendments are quite different: they’re more restrictive and more discriminatory.

Fast forward one hundred years. When I was in fifth grade at Mary B. Austin Elementary School in the early 1970s, my neighborhood school was the most wonderful learning environment in the world to me. We children came from various religious, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, but I don’t remember those even being mentioned. Austin was a meritocracy, lacking much if any social stratification. Our talents were encouraged, challenged and supported.

In sixth grade, our little class moved to a larger middle school that was being desegregated. These new students, white and black, were behind us academically, but far ahead of us in worldliness. At that school, I remember:

  • A teacher coming to school drunk and going to sleep during class.
  • A student with a hypodermic needle chased a terrified friend of mine around the gym.
  • My father correcting teachers’ grammatical errors when I brought assignments home for parental signatures.
  • Classmates telling graphic stories about sexual experiences when most of us Austin kids, pre-teens all, had yet to even hold hands with someone.

The next year, my parents sent my older brother and me to St. Paul’s Episcopal School. Thanks to St Paul’s excellent academics, my brother and I were both National Merit Scholars. We both went on to obtain advanced degrees. We’ve had good careers (well, he’s had a great one.) We’ve seen the world as one of opportunity.

I wonder just how many of those children at that middle school perceived similar opportunity. They did not have the chance to move to a private school like we did. (For one thing, at that time, few private schools in Alabama had many black students. Now, thankfully, most are more diverse.) Mostly, though, private schools were, and are, expensive. School choice may lessen the limits poverty imposes on opportunity, irrespective of race.

I’ve followed this issue in my native Alabama and now in Colorado, for years. The Blaine Amendment continues to perpetuate the segregation of expectation and opportunity, just like we saw in 70s Alabama. Logistical challenges will arise however we try to improve our education system.  However, vouchers provide children with expanded educational opportunities. They let parents choose the best environment for their families. They are a good idea.

Here are some common misconceptions.

Vouchers promote religion.Most, if not all, voucher programs have restrictions in place to ensure voucher students are not required to participate in religious instruction and activity. Vouchers are not about evangelizing religious beliefs. Vouchers are about making educational opportunity available to all. Some private schools have simply figured out how to better prepare their students for college than the current public school system. Students deserve the opportunity to attend these excellent schools.

Vouchers are meant to give rich parents discounts at private schools. They are meant to do the opposite – to give students whose parents have aspirations but not the financial means to achieve them the chance to broaden their children’s options. We can break the poverty cycle through better education. These schools provide better education. We can give more students access to better schools.

Vouchers are meant to get rid of the entire public school system, starve neighborhood schools, and change the system to a for profit model. The vast majority of parents – me included – support  neighborhood schools. My son has attended public schools throughout his academic career. I loved my own neighborhood school. However, if a neighborhood does not have a good school, do we just count those children’s lost academic opportunity, their trajectory, as a sacrifice that has to be made to sustain the overall current public school model? Or do we look at ways, including vouchers, to make sure each child gets a great education?

Bad schools are only a problem in <fill in the state, but usually Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi… anywhere but the state where a voucher program is under consideration.>There are bad public schools everywhere, in every state. This argument can only be made by someone who lives somewhere sheltered from the challenges in other less secure, less affluent, neighborhoods.

Times have changed. Your experience in 1970s Alabama is no longer relevant. A few years ago at a middle school football game with my son, I fell into conversation with the wife of the coach of the opposing team, which was from Denver. In the course of our conversation, she mentioned that some of the boys’ parents were addicted to crack, so she made sure to pick those kids up and give them a ride to a safe place each night after practice. She said that they had a team sleepover each year, and it was quite a sight when the boys lined up “out the front door” to use the one bathroom in the coach’s home.

Her quiet courage and commitment were awe-inspiring. All played a rousing game of football that day, and everyone had a great time. But I was left with the knowledge that the challenges her boys faced here in supposedly wealthy Colorado were akin to those in 70s Alabama. Their life experiences were just as alien to my son’s safe suburban life, much further away than the 20 miles we drove to the game. Vouchers could help some of those boys, aided by a committed adult like that coach’s wife, escape bad family backgrounds, aspire to more, and someday help someone else.

If any of those kids have the chance to get an excellent education, however that can be achieved, I’m in. Children who are given the chance to excel early, in the learning environment best for them, have the best chance at a fulfilling life. Parents should have the choice about where their children should attend school. Providing school vouchers for these children, giving them an opportunity they deserve and might otherwise not even know exists, seems an excellent investment of public money.

I’m looking forward to the next challenge to the Blaine Amendment –  perhaps at the Supreme Court level. It may take a few years, but so did many other great efforts when people sought to ensure equal opportunity for all. This is a worthwhile cause.

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