Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Smile Police

It's common knowledge that our attitudes shape our reality. There is no such thing as a crisis, if we choose to view it as an opportunity. If, despite our best efforts, we find ourselves poor, or ill, or depressed, it must have been because we didn't wish hard enough, didn't smile enough, didn't send enough good vibes into the universe. No one likes a complainer. If we all stopped whining, the world would be a better place.

Not so, according to Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, which traces the history of so-called positive thinking from its Calvinist roots. Rather than being liberating, the practice of positive thinking is in reality relentless self-criticism and blame. It's not that the system is broken, or that the world is full of injustice. The problem is you and your bad attitude. People who believe this are subject to all sorts of abuses, and are expected to keep a fake smile plastered across their faces as they bend over and take it.

I've been hearing this message for most of my life. I was often labeled a "complainer" or called "negative" when I opened up to people about my life and circumstances. No one wanted to hear how hungry I was, or how none of my clothes fit properly, or angry and violent my dad was when my mom wasn't around. No one was even willing to contemplate what it was like to be me, a scrawny trailer park kid scapegoated by her own family, weird and angry and alone. They rolled their eyes when I talked, told me to "get over it", "quit bitching" and once, memorably, "shut the fuck up." And this was from my friends.

So I learned to keep my mouth shut. I came to Austin at age 17 determined to recreate myself. Gone was the complainer, the weirdo, the angry misfit. A brighter, more fun girl arrived in Texas, determined to have a great time. But it grew increasingly difficult to maintain my good cheer as college became more stressful, I worked myself to the point of exhaustion, and the debt kept piling up. I struck a nice balance though, or so I felt. I had friends I could be myself around and everyone else got my polite smile and diplomatic conversation.

Working as a nanny for the conspiracy theorist's wife changed all that. Mabel* (who, unfortunately, worked from home) didn't just expect a positive attitude, she enforced it. No one in her presence was allowed to display negative emotion of any kind. There was zero tolerance for complaints, or even diplomatic disagreements. The word hate was forbidden. Use of the word crud was deemed "awful". Crying was anathema; if the children were upset, I was expected to do everything in my power to soothe and comfort them, regardless of why they were upset. Even facial expressions were carefully monitored, to the point where Thomas the Tank Engine, two-year-old Johnny's* favorite show in the world, was forbidden because "the trains frown." In Mabel's world, children were naturally pure, angelic creatures who should be frolicking happily all day, tended to by perpetually smiling adults. This attitude explains her constant disappointment; her own kids, exhausted from the dysfunctional "family bed" and hungry from only eating "healthy" food (too low in protein and fat, devoid of any sugar or salt to make it more palatable), acted up, shrieking, sobbing inconsolably, sometimes smearing shit on the walls. Sometimes Johnny would masturbate furiously while sitting on the potty, screaming at me when I tried to make him stop. She made them miserable, and I dealt with the fallout.

I tried to please that woman. I really did. I worked from 8:00 to 4:00 with no break, taking care of the kids, doing laundry and dishes, vacuuming, running errands. I learned not to ask for a break as my request would be met with angry sighs and complaints about how now she would be behind on her work. She hated to see me enjoying myself, even for a moment, so she enforced a no-reading policy, actually removing a book from a room if she suspected my eyes may have been straying from her children to the page. I grew despondent. I woke up every morning with dread in my heart. My fake smile crumbled more and more, until one day Mabel pulled me aside and warned me that if I wasn't happy there, she could replace me with someone who would be. I needed the money so I lied and said I was happy, but inside I was unraveling.

A few weeks later I finally put in my notice, proud of myself for having made it to six months. The frantic search for a replacement immediately began (revealing just how hollow Mabel's threat to replace me actually was). She applied with a nanny placement service and, foolishly, left her application out where I could read it. Under special requests she had written, "No sad sacks." Why, that's me, I thought. I'm the sad sack. Something in me changed in that moment, as I saw myself characterized in such a way. I realized that this woman had no idea who I was, how my mind worked, or what I was feeling. I had let an irrational, paranoid, spoiled, sheltered woman have complete control over my life, and she had brought out the very worst in me. But now I was free. No more false smiles or suppressed rage, no more feeling trapped in that brick fortress while the world passed by on the other side of the window. I left the house that day smiling for real.

I no longer make an effort to mask my emotions. If I'm happy, sad, mad, whatever, I let it show on my face. I express it in words. When Harrison gets swept away by an emotion, I acknowledge and name that feeling. As he gets older, I'll encourage him to name his own feelings, to understand and cope with, rather than deny, his essential humanity. I'll teach him that those who would try to control his thoughts and feelings are not to be trusted. And I'll know that every smile, every laugh, every "I love you" is genuine and sincere.

*totally made-up name

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Security Breach

Last week I finished an excellent and enlightening nonfiction book titled The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger. It was like reality tonic, a refreshing purge of knee-jerk, irrational ideas. The book's thesis is that we are programmed by evolution to have a skewed sense of risk that errs on the side of what we perceive as caution. By becoming aware of these inherent biases, we can recognize them in our own behavior and work to compensate for them. I put the book down and went to bed, satisfied that my family and I were quite safe, relatively speaking.

I was awakened a mere twenty minutes later by my dog Mary Jane, shivering at my bedside. This was an odd occurrence; she always sleeps in the chaise lounge in the living room, only getting up to go outside when the baby wakes up for his nighttime feeding. She was poking me with her snout, gesturing with her head toward the hallway. I waved her off but she persisted. I got up with a sigh, thinking maybe she had diarrhea or something. Better to get up and put her out than to have a mess to clean up in the morning. My third dog, tiny little Bailey, squirmed out from under the covers to join us, not wanting to be left out. My first dog, the large, old, and morose Dahlia, stayed put on her bed.

The three of us went down the hallway, Bailey in the lead with Mary Jane on her heels, me straggling behind after a quick glance at the sleeping baby. As Bailey rounded the corner into the darkened kitchen, she recoiled with a volley of high-pitched barks. Mary Jane, her hackles raised, charged into the darkness, also barking. I heard the glass patio door rattle in its frame. I froze in the hallway, stage-whispering, "Shut the fuck up!", thinking only of the baby waking and the ensuing loss of sleep for us both. I wondered if there was an animal on the patio, maybe a raccoon, skunk, or strange cat, foraging for spilled dog food. I peered around the corner and felt a rush of cold air on my face.

The patio door was wide open. Beyond it, cold darkness. My sleep-addled mind reeled. Why was the door open? I looked to my left, into the darkened living room and surprised myself by saying, "Hello?" No reply. I hurried to the back door and closed and locked it. Behind me, the dogs were still growling, pacing the kitchen. I glanced around. Everything looked the same. I walked into the living room, the dogs trailing, and turned on a light. The room was quiet and empty. Everything looked just as it had when I went to bed. I looked at the garage door but couldn't bring myself to look in there.

It couldn't have been a person, I told myself. A person wouldn't have run off when threatened by a ten-pound min-pin/rat terrier wearing a hand-me-down baby sweatshirt. A person would have taken something, or ... Jesus. I hurried down the hall to check on my baby again. He was in his crib, still sleeping soundly despite the dog outburst.

Everything seemed to be in its right place. So why was the fucking door open? My mind leaped to a conclusion. It was my husband, Bill. He was the last one to bed, the last one to let the dogs out and the cats in. I could see it all so clearly. I imagined our cat Big Boy, who is scared of Bill, balking about coming inside. So Bill leaves the door open as he performs some minor task, starting the dishwasher maybe, hoping the cat will dart in while his back is turned. But this dumb version of my husband forgets all about the door, thinking only of resting his beer-soaked bones, flicking off the kitchen light and heading to bed without a second thought.

I stormed into the bedroom and shook him none too gently by the shoulder. "Hey," I said. "Did you leave the back door open?"
His eyes fluttered open and he looked at me, confused.
"The back door, I said. "It was wide open. Did you leave the door open?"
He hates it when I talk to him like that. "No," he said in a wounded tone. He rolled over, his back to me. He knew he hadn't left the door open. His nagging wife was wrong. End of discussion.
I was irritated that he didn't share my alarm. It had to have been him who left the door open. The alternative, that a malicious stranger had been in my house while my family was sleeping, was unacceptable. To acknowledge that would be to open myself up to a great surge of fear. Adrenaline would flood my body, causing my heart to pound, my hands to sweat. I would lie awake in bed all night, on a solitary vigil against an unknown intruder, my ears attuned to every little sound, checking on my baby every few minutes, a prisoner to my imagination. There would be no sleep that night.

I have always wondered if I am prone to denial, if I could alter my perception of reality by refusing to see what was right in front of me. As it turns out, the answer is yes. I am and I can. You see, I just barely get enough sleep as it is, and the subconscious thought of a night of wakeful terror sent the rationalization center of my brain into overdrive. This same persuasive voice had, in the past, convinced me that a Tuesday morning was, in fact, a Saturday, that my alarm had been set in error, and that the sensible thing to do was to roll over and go back to sleep. In that instance, I had overridden it and dragged my sleepy butt into work, thus keeping my horrible job. But as tired as I've been since my baby was born, the thought that my husband had left the door open slid right past my bullshit detector and became a conviction. I tumbled into bed and was asleep within seconds.

My husband woke me up the next morning. "You said the door was open last night, right?"
"Yeah," I said. "Thanks for that."
He didn't take the bait. "I think someone might have been in the house."
Delayed terror from the night before seized me. I sat up. "What? Why?"
"It looks like someone messed with the computer."
"Is anything missing?
"I can't find the digital camera. Was it on the desk?"
I was pretty sure it had been. "Maybe it's on the coffee table."
It wasn't.
We walked around the house together, taking inventory, piecing together clues. A likely scenario started to form, a bit of narrative to impose some structure on this bizarre event.

A man, alone, walks down our quiet street at night, around the time when most people have just gone to bed. Normally he would do this kind of work during the day, but he's growing desperate for money. Maybe he's hoping to find something to steal, some cash, a stereo, an iPhone, something he can trade down at the corner, at the duplex where different cars are always pulling up for a few minutes at a time. The guy is peeking in windows and checking yards for tools or yard supplies carelessly left outside.
He opens our neighbor's back gate and tries to peek in the windows, but the blinds are drawn, the locks secure. Nothing to steal there. He heads to our back yard, leaving the neighbor's gate open, and uses his knife to slash the nylon tie keeping the gate closed. He leaves it open for a quick getaway and peers into our kitchen window.
Paydirt. A desktop computer, just sitting there. He quickly and quietly assesses his options. The patio door is old and rickety, kept locked by a metal latch and a wooden bar wedged across the bottom. He uses his knife to jimmy open the lock and, as quietly as possible, rock the door so the bar will slide up, allowing him to maneuver it open.
In the living room, Mary Jane's ears prick up. She is suddenly on alert, nostrils flaring. She hears a frightening, stealthy noise, from the kitchen. She creeps from the chair and slinks to the threshold, where she encounters a horrifying sight. The dark figure of a man, hunched over the desk, messing with the family's things. She darts down the hall to go get Mommy. Mommy will know what to do.
Unaware of the dog's presence, the thief spies a digital camera and slips it into his pocket. He then sizes up the computer on the desk, tossing a framed photo of a black lab and a couple of loose CD's onto the desk chair. He decides to go for the monitor first; it's small, easy to carry, and can be unhooked quickly. He moves a speaker to get easier access, and that's when all hell breaks loose.
A dog barks, a shrill burst of sound. No one could sleep through that, and he's caught, utterly fucked if he doesn't get out now. He bolts out the patio door and across the yard, through the back gate that leads down to the creek. No one will find him back there. It's dark and the footing is treacherous so he half slides, half tumbles down the hill to the creek bed. His clothes are now caked with mud, his hands and knees bruised and abraded from the rocks. He just knows that those people called the cops, why wouldn't they, it was obvious they were being robbed. He hustles to put some distance between himself and the house, constantly looking up for police helicopters, comforting himself that at least it wasn't a total wash. At least he got a digital camera, and that could be traded in for at least one fix.

We'll probably never know more about him than that. There's a remote chance that he'll be caught somewhere else, and that crime will be connected to this one. That's why we called the cops, filed a report, and alerted the neighbors. The immediate danger was past, but whoever this guy is, he's still wandering around out there somewhere, trying to fulfill his deranged needs.

A part of me wanted to overreact, to buy a gun and set a trap, to take advantage of living in Texas and the right to protect the homestead that goes along with it. But that would be an irrational reaction. Instead of imagining all the horrible things that could have happened to me and my family, I'm going to focus on what actually did happen. The precautions I take will be directly proportional to the legitimate risks I face.

To deter future thieves, we put padlocks on the gates, extra locks on the windows, blinds across the kitchen window and patio door. We put up a Beware of Dog sign. Bill trimmed the wooden bar to fit the door better and we started wedging it in higher, making it virtually impossible to open from outside. We now leave the patio light on all night; anyone lurking will be harshly exposed. Eventually we'll get a better patio door, but for now our makeshift security measures will have to do.

I had grown complacent about the actual dangers of living in my neighborhood. There is crime here, after all. And while it doesn't make sense for me to never leave the house for fear that my neighbors might kill me, it also doesn't make sense for me to make it easy for criminals to get into my house.
After the cops left, I contemplated the book I had just read. I had been smug in the knowledge that my own sense of risk was rational and balanced. But I was wrong; I am just as subject to bias as the next person. This time I got lucky, losing only a digital camera. Thanks to the lessons about safety that we took to heart, there will not be a next time.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Everybody Play Nice

This post may seem like a departure from my usual thoughts on parenting, but I think it suits the evolving purpose of this blog. When I started this blog, the focus was on my infertility and pervasive sadness. Then, when I renewed my interest in it, the focus shifted to caring for a newborn and trying to make decisions based on reason instead of fear. Now my thoughts turn to my budding skepticism, and how to best model rational behavior for my son. His social development is really starting to emerge, and he looks to me for cues on how to respond to the world. It's a huge responsibility and I take it very seriously.

I'm pretty new to the world of skepticism. It's only been since my baby was born last June that I even apply that label to myself. Since then I've realized how exhausting and frustrating it is to be a skeptic in the face of overwhelming idiocy. There are a lot of ignorant jerks out there (both in the real world and on the internet) and no amount of reason or common sense can get through to them. It's tempting to call a spade a spade and tell people like anti-vaccinationists, creationists, and 9/11 truthers that they're a bunch of jackasses who should leave the room (or comment thread) while the grownups are talking.

Unfortunately, that's counterproductive, and only serves to further reinforce the notion that skeptics are arrogant, conceited eggheads. There are a lot of people whose minds aren't made up yet, and acting like a jerk will only discredit your cause. Not to mention that, if there are no other skeptics around to rally to your cause, you can find yourself quickly alienated if these topics of conversation come up in a social setting. As someone who has all-too-frequently felt alienated, I know how unpleasant and lonely this can be. Better to just bite your tongue and go along to get along.

Or is it? Lately I've been made aware of a third option, one that requires far more patience and carefully thought out speech than most of us are used to. Instead of starting from the premise of "you're wrong, idiot," a skeptic should simply counter misinformation with fact. No raised voices (or all caps), no name-calling, no broad generalizations. None of the latter techniques will get your point across, as they immediately put people on the defensive and give them permission not to listen to anything you have to say. In other words, be nice.

This is going to be a huge challenge for me. I'm generally not a jerk, but damn I get mad at stupid people. In fact, the name of my blog is an homage to the late comedian Bill Hicks, whose hate-filled tirades are legendary (and hilarious). Like many smart, angry people, Bill Hicks felt like the lone voice of sanity in a world of morons. It can be very liberating to just say exactly what you think, eviscerating your enemies verbally, cutting them down to size. This style of oration works well in comedy; not so much in the real world.

I don't want Harrison to be an asshole. It'll be hard enough to be raised an atheist and an intellectual without the added burden of an abrasive personality. So it's up to me to not be an asshole, even to someone who richly deserves it. I worked in child care for most of my 20's, and it's been my observation that kids who are jerks have parents who are jerks. If I want Harrison to be a decent kid who other kids don't mind hanging out with, I have to teach him how to speak his mind respectfully. Which means (sigh) that I have to be respectful, too.