Sunday, July 18, 2010

Stuck in the Middle with Woo

Facebook is good for a lot of things. For example, I know what all my old buddies are up to (sometimes in excruciating detail), no matter where in the world they are. I have a tangible, visible network of support, a daily reminder that I'm not alone, that I do fit in somewhere. I can build on relationships from the comfort of my own home, without the pressure and awkwardness of face-to-face contact. Hell, Facebook even facilitated my husband's finding a job, snatching us back from the precipice of foreclosure and disgrace.
But there's a downside, and no, I'm not talking about privacy concerns (I have very little to hide). I'm talking about an infestation of woo in my news feed.

I'm used to a little woo - I went to the Down to Earth School in Silver City, New Mexico, after all, which offered classes like Tai Chi and Psychic Studies as part of the curriculum. Just because I became a skeptic doesn't mean that everyone else has to, and for the most part I can just ignore woo-friendly posts. It's the batshit crazy stuff that's getting me down.

Take Andrea, for example. She was one of my first friends here in Austin, a fun, gregarious blonde with a somewhat ditzy streak. We were roommates for a while, but we lost touch after a falling out involving a sleazy guy and a purloined telephone calling card. While in a reflective mood one day, I searched for her on Facebook and sent a friend request, which she accepted. Turns out she's got a couple of kids and lives a nomadic lifestyle roaming the beaches and mountains of Mexico. Cool, glad to be in touch, blah blah blah.

Then she went off the deep end. It started with a post that stated: Vaccines Cause Autism, along with a link to Natural News, one of the crank websites so often blasted by Orac and others. My knee-jerk reaction was to reply, no it doesn't, but I felt that was too curt and would be ineffective. So I linked to the Science Based Medicine vaccine-autism reference page and waited to see how she would respond. Half an hour later, she said this:

if you go into the contributor link at the top of this blog and look up each of the "contributors" and enter them into google, you will find each member has strong ties to big pharm. kind of makes me think that the "non biasness" of their articles might not be so unbiased. this is a really touchy topic with people, i usually don't post stuff like this, but with 1 in 10 American children being diagnosed with autism, its important to start an open dialogue so that answers can be found and the perpetrators can be brought to light, and maybe someday justice

Wow. The pharma shill gambit wrapped up in a conspiracy theory, with an appeal to emotion. I was starting to suspect there would be no getting through to Andrea, but I felt I should at least give it an honest try, just one parent to another discussing an important issue. So I replied with the following:

The claim that vaccines cause autism is certainly alarming, but I have yet to see credible evidence to support it. I agree that it's a hot-button issue and I mean you no disrespect by disagreeing with your opinion. But since most of the people qualified to write about the issue are doctors and scientists,there will naturally be some overlap with the medical and pharmaceutical industries. Lord knows there's corruption in those industries, but not all doctors and scientists are in the pocket of big pharma. Ultimately, it's the quality of the evidence that matters, regardless of the source.
I've been following this issue for some time myself - no one wants to risk exposing their child to unnecessary harm - and have yet to be convinced that the increase in autism diagnosis is due to anything other than an increased awareness of the disorder and a change in the diagnotic criteria.
All right, I thought. If that doesn't get through to her, then nothing will.

Well, I guess nothing will. She never responded and, since then, she has really ramped up the crazy. Lately my news feed has been bombarded with reports of her "spiritual awakening," which apparently is coinciding with the "9th wave of galactic energy as predicted by the Mayans". (I know. I couldn't make this stuff up.) She's also been posting more links to Natural News and sites that seem even more far out than that. Soon I may have to take the step that I've taken with only one other irritating "friend" (also named Andrea, oddly enough) -- I'll have to hide her from my news feed. I probably will if she doesn't come down from her trip a little, but I don't want to because it feels like giving up. If I turn away from and refuse to deal with things I find objectionable, I've given up any remote chance I have of influencing that person away from woo. I don't have any delusions that I can somehow reason Andrea down from the ledge, but maybe I can plant a skeptical seed somewhere in her mind. Maybe someday that seed will flourish, her head will clear and she'll ground herself in reality, which really isn't so bad, most of the time. Probably not, but maybe. It's worth a shot.

Andrea's one of the more extreme examples of my woo infestation, but there are others. I also have a friend named Mike, a fellow writer and Austinite, who is quite spiritual. Normally it doesn't bug me at all -- he's an intelligent, empathetic, and courteous man who never imposes his views on others, and I respect his right to his beliefs. But when I heard him drop the term health freedom, my skeptic sense started tingling. (This is one of the antivaxers favorite phrases to use against what they see as coerced vaccination.) And sure enough, he recently posted a link to Natural News. The article itself was innocuous enough, but I wondered if he had ever read the sort of things about Mike Adams, the man behind Natural News, that I had been reading. I had tried to reach Andrea as a parent. How could I possibly reach Mike? Fortunately Mike, unlike Andrea, listens well, is thoughtful and empathetic, and doesn't perceive challenges to his opinions as personal attacks. I decided to try a direct approach. First, I commented on the article.

I read about this case last year - the good ol' boy network strikes again.
Then I went on to say:

However, I feel I should chime in and state my opinion that Mike Adams of Natural News is a raving nutball and an asshole to boot. I'm reading an article debunking one of his claims right now - if you want me to shoot you the link, let me know.

There. I prefaced it as an opinion, using stronger language than I usually do, and left it up to him as to whether or not to respond. The ball was in his court.

He replied:

Yes. I examine all sides.

Encouraged, I shot back:

I know you do, Mike; otherwise I wouldn't bother trying to change your mind about anything. :)

Now, this article may not change your mind about Natural News, but I think you'll find that, despite his caustic writing style, Orac has extensive knowledge of medical science, always cites his sources, and has the intention of helping people avoid being taken in by scams and dubious claims.
This site contains many, many posts on Adams.

He didn't reply with his opinion of the link, but that's cool. I did my part by offering a different perspective, one he probably wouldn't otherwise have heard, on a blog he reads regularly. Whether he chooses to read Orac's articles on Mike Adams or not is beside the point - at least he knows they're there. And something tells me he might just give them a read.

So I've found yet another use for Facebook. Not to proselytize or push my beliefs (or lack thereof) on my friends. But rather, to state my position clearly and respectfully so that my friends know where I stand. Maybe, just maybe, I'll start a few people down the road to skepticism. But even if I don't, at least I'll know that I spoke up about what matters to me, in the clearest and most effective way I could. 

Sunday, June 13, 2010

First Trip 'Round the Sun

Harrison's first birthday was not just a day, but a process.
It started with him weaning himself about two weeks before. Yes, my boy stopped nursing of his own accord, much to the envy of my still-nursing friends. He switched to cow's milk with a minimum of fuss, happy to get the instant gratification that he never could from the boob, which required way too much work and patience. Finally, my body is mine again, to use and abuse as I see fit. There were things I loved abut nursing: the convenience, the lack of cost, the closeness with my baby, but I never did get what all the fuss was about. There are women out there who feel exalted by breastfeeding, who love every second of it and who harshly criticize any woman who chooses (or is not able) to do it. Me, I felt more like a mother cow being milked by a rude and impatient calf. Nothing romantic about that.

His actual birthday fell on Wednesday, June 2nd. All day long I was extra sweet to him and, though he had no idea why, he ate it up. He also ate up his very first cupcake, smearing chocolate frosting all over himself in exactly the way I had hoped he would. I reminisced about being pregnant, about what things were like on the day of his birth, about the profound changes in myself that were heralded by his arrival. I despaired over hospital bills still to be paid and pounds still to be shed. I congratulated myself for not just getting him through his first year, but for ensuring that his first year of life was full of happiness, laughter, and robust good health.

We had his party that Saturday. I kept it very low-key, and not just for financial reasons. I've been to a lot of kids' parties where Mom is the center of attention, overdressed, fluttering around trying to ensure that every last thing is perfect even though their baby really doesn't give a shit. I admit that I have a tendency to expect too much from parties and to be disappointed when people I like fail to show up or nobody is paying any attention to me. I get anxious and weird and eventually just want everyone to go home so I can cut my losses and go to bed. But this was not my party, and it was about Harrison, not me. All I cared about was whether he and his pint-sized guests had a good time. To that end, I set up a tiny kiddie pool on the patio and a sprinkler on the lawn. I had beer for the grownups and simple snacks like veggies, chips, and dip. I made my own cake, which was decidedly less than perfect - I ended up using the frosting (homemade cream cheese) as a sort of plaster to hold the damn thing together and decorated it myself, spelling out his name in shaky letters, making a border to disguise the misshapen edges, and then dumping multi-colored sprinkles over the whole thing. If you didn't look too close, it was actually sort of cute.
I knew he wouldn't remember it later, but on some level I felt that this get-together would establish a baseline for every party from then on. A few friends, some food and drink, warm sunshine and cool water - what more could anyone ask for? He and two other babies splashed around a bit, playing with ducks, boats, and plastic stacking cups while our friends' five-year-old ran around under the sprinkler which was whirling out on the lawn. When that grew tiresome, we all came in to have the cake (which may have looked merely okay, but tasted awesome) and to open the presents. He got some really cool new toys and tons of attention. Not long after, people started packing up their kids and heading out, leaving all three of us exhausted but satisfied. If that party indeed sets up Harrison's expectations of gatherings to come, I will be thrilled. And yet I was hesitant to remove his party decorations. Maybe it was laziness, but I just couldn't bring myself to take his party banner and balloons off the wall. It didn't quite seem like his birthday was over, somehow.

The following Monday we took him in for his one-year well-baby checkup which, unfortunately, consisted of four individual shots and a blood draw. Now, anyone who has read this blog knows how I feel about vaccines – they help prevent childhood diseases that were devastating a generation ago, which makes them worth the small risk of adverse effects. But after going through that experience, I have more sympathy for the parents who have a knee-jerk reaction against them. Watching my boy being held down by his daddy and two nurses as he was poked and re-poked was incredibly traumatizing, more so for me than for him. His screams cut to the center of me, provoking a physical reaction somewhere between sobbing and hysterical laughter. I had to actively suppress the part of my brain, honed through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, which demanded that I knock everyone aside and rescue my poor distressed child. I could see how people with a poor understanding of correlation and causation would link such a distressing event with later developmental problems. As necessary as it was for his long term well-being, at the time it seemed harsh and cruel. Fortunately, it was over quickly, and after being rewarded for his bravery with a cup of ice cold apple juice, he was back to his normal self, albeit a very tired and grouchy version. And I’m pleased to say that he does not appear to have “contracted” autism. Suck it, Jenny McCarthy.

When we got home I finally took the party decorations down, feeling a sense of closure. All in all, it was a wonderful first year, and I look forward to many more to come.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Thank You, Hallmark

Before I became a mother, I dismissed Mother's Day as a made up, Hallmark-mandated crap fest and I resented being told exactly when and how to appreciate my mom. I know she appreciated the card, phone call, and occasional (finances-permitting) bouquet, but still, the whole thing reeked of phony sentiment to me.

It got a lot worse while I was infertile. It seemed that the holiday was set up deliberately to mock me, and all the other women who fruitlessly aspired to be mothers. Where were our cards and flowers and TV specials? Who was going to make us breakfast in bed? I always sunk really low on those days, making my obligatory calls to me mom and sister, then avoiding the outside world for the rest of the day. It was a bullshit holiday and everyone who went along with it were just pawns of the flower and greeting card industries.

Now that I'm fully immersed in mommyhood, I'm whistling a different tune. Being a mom is hard work, no matter how grateful you are to have become one. Sleep deprivation, a complete lack of free time, and caring for someone who is not only utterly and completely dependent, but who is also a raging ball of desires and shifting emotions, well, it wears you down after a while. Plus, like most mommies, I work and keep the house clean. So, yeah, I would like some fucking flowers please.

I love the idea of husbands and kids, pens poised over the blank space of a greeting card, thinking of what to thank their wives and mothers for. Well, one might think, she sure does a great job of making sure everyone else's needs are met. And she must be exhausted from working so hard, but she gets up and does it all again each day. Whether or not that ends up in the card is irrelevant, at least to me. The important thing is that others ponder the role of mother and acknowledge how committed we are to being good at it. I want my husband to reflect on how a good homecooked meal ends up on the table each night, how the house has not devolved into Hoarders-style chaos, and  how I'm loving and gentle to our child, even when his tea-kettle shrieks make my fillings vibrate.

I'm pleased to say, he came through nicely. I awoke to a lovely bouquet, a gourmet meal (store-bought, but still) heating in the oven, and two touching greeting cards, one from each of them (obviously Daddy picked out Harrison's). My husband cleaned the house, handled the baby-related tasks, and didn't even complain when I went out for a few hours to meet with my writing group. It was a wonderful day.

So, even though it's a manufactured holiday that leaves infertiles out in the cold, I finally appreciate Mother's Day. One day of being spoiled goes a long way towards easing the resentment of being the busiest person in a family, and reflecting on all the things that mothers do promotes empathy toward them. I don't really care that a heartless multinational corporation got the ball rolling on this holiday; it's ours and we've earned it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Not Now, Mommy's Working

Back in 2006, when I first decided it was time to get serious about starting a family, I reevaluated my work situation. Up until then, I had always worked outside of the home, mostly in food service and child care. While there were certain things I liked about these jobs, there was one thing I absolutely hated: actually leaving my house. Maybe it's agoraphobia, or just a deep-seated love of home, but I cannot stand to leave knowing I'll be gone for more than a few hours. It seriously affected my motivation to work, since I would take any opportunity to leave work early, regardless of how badly I needed the money. I worried about how much harder that would get after I became a mother. Could I drive away and leave my child for up to ten hours at a time, probably in the company of another woman who I didn't even know? Although I know plenty of mothers who manage that difficult duty, I think that, for me, it would be devastating. Especially if I was driving off to go watch other people's kids, stepping in for their mothers while they went to work.

So, along comes 2006. My then-boyfriend and I finally, after nine years, accepted that yes, our relationship was very serious, and we should take the plunge and get married. After years of looking after others' little ones, I was ready for one of my own. The only real issue was: how would I get to stay home with my baby and still earn enough money to maintain our modestly comfortable lifestyle?

Enter my good friend the internet. Surely, I thought, there has to be some way, other than pornography, to earn a living online. As it turns out, merely having a college degree qualifies you to tutor students online and to score their standardized test responses. I did both of those for a while, then quit the tutoring to focus on the scoring. I didn't bring in much; never more than ten grand a year, but it was a nice supplement to Bill's income, and good god, do I love being at home. I got my house clean and organized, read obsessively, played Sims 2 whenever I felt like it, and actually finished writing a novel. All that was missing was the baby.

Three years later I finally had a baby, and the whole plan clicked neatly into plac. For about six months. Then, without warning and for a bullshit reason, my husband lost his job. No salary, no benefits. No insurance. Income uncertain. My mind reeled with well-baby visits, illness and injuries, unfilled cavities that had been awaiting the new year's flexible spending account. Until he found a new job, we could not afford to fix anything,get sick or hurt, or buy things that weren't absolutely necessary. I responded to this careening-out-of-control feeling by scheduling as many hours as I possibly could for the upcoming spring scoring sessions. At least I could cover the mortgage for a month or two, I thought. Bill could watch the baby and I could score, score, score.

But staying home with the baby was my dream, not Bill's, and our new schedule started to take its toll. I missed my son's company, even getting a little jealous hearing his giggles from the other room. Bill missed playing video games and going out for a cigarette whenever he felt like it. Plus, Harrison's top front teeth are coming in, making him much needier and fussier than usual. So instead of scoring happily away, blissfully unaware of my family, I was pulled in several directions at once, trying to keep on top of a busy scoring session and trying to help manage the baby's schedule without stepping on Bill's toes.

Somehow we all survived, and now I've got a better handle on things. My panic has subsided (or at least receded - it can come roaring back in an instant), Bill has found a part time job/apprenticeship that he enjoys and makes a little money doing, his unemployment benefits are coming in, and he has a good lead on a new job in a better company. All this lets me feel better about scoring less and spending more time as a wife and mother. From now on my family comes first and my job comes second. And any time I wonder if staying home is worth it, I can step away from my desk mid-shift to peek at my sleeping boy. The sight of him makes everything all right.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Oh crap, where'd he go?

Up until recently, watching Harrison while getting things done was a breeze. He would hang out in his bouncy chair, or in his playpen surrounded by toys. I could take my eyes off him, to write, or work, or do laundry.
But now he's all over the place. His crawling went from lurching and disorganized to pro status within a few days. Now he's working those arms and legs like a pro, exploring his environment, which is my suddenly fraught-with-hazards living room. For example, he likes to try to pull open the drawer on the coffee table; the child safety latch we installed allows him to open it just wide enough to smash his fingers, which he does. Repeatedly. Point him in a different direction and he's crawling to the window and muscling aside the dogs so he can yank on the curtain, which is secured to the wall with thumbtacks (hey, I never claimed to be Martha Stewart here). Then there's the glass door of the fireplace to bang on and when that gets boring, there are plants to mangle and attempt to eat. Even when I'm standing right over him, watching his every move, he still manages to bump his face into things, get himself wedged into tight spaces, and cram mysterious (and disgusting) floor crud into his mouth.
To top it off, I've got a lot of work coming up in the next couple of months, and I'm seriously wondering how I'm going to manage it. I can't just confine him to his playpen, jumperoo, or crib for hours at a time, just for my convenience. That's not fair to him, nor is it good for his development. I'll just have to split my attention and hope that nothing bad happens to him or to any of the readers I'll be supervising, as I try to give everyone the attention they need and deserve.

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.