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Returning after 7 years to celebrate a 20th Anniversary (base 10) and turn 30 in hex (part 1)

Months beforehand, the invitation went out that my employer was celebrating its 20th anniversary on my current coast, on my birthday. I hadn’t been to a work meeting in 7 years. I hadn’t worked for money in 7 years. And in many ways, I had disappeared from who I thought I truly was for the same period of time, doubling down on motherhood while disintegrating in extreme suburbia to the point that only the most abrasive language and volume remained.

This last workplace had meant much more than a paycheck. It was a place where I felt I actually had belonged, had fit. That it wasn’t congruous to where I grew up or went to school only made it more treasured. And seven years without it, in another environment that was not a fit, contributed to a sense of deep, deep sadness.

So, I decided (after insisting to my spouse that he had to go) to attend. The event was on my birthday – and thanks to the spouse, I got to leave a day early. I’d arrive 2F and leave 30. And in between I’d ask about my cake. Incessantly.

Prep
As a comm person who did front of house as well as behind the scenes, I knew the importance of self-presentation, an even scarier proposition of science and dark arts than Halloween requires as a woman in that role. But 7 years out of the game meant bigger gaps, less context. I went to Zara to find things that made me feel confident and that I thought were cool. If I thought so, it wouldn’t matter what anyone else thought. I got some hair help, as I had come to the conclusion that I would like to have it, not that I was horrible without it. I thought about who I would like to see – many many people, in fact. I thought about mistakes I made with some of those people (where I behaved badly, in particular) and how I would try to make amends. I touched base with (mostly) my female colleagues, knowing they’d be busy, but letting them know I would appreciate any stolen moments they had to catch up on life. Their lives, mine too.

It was probably the longest I ever took to pack in some time. Proper armor is serious business, not just for comm, but in the 75/25 “you are what you look like/you are what you say” world that women occupy. It would come into the room before I did, and I had goals for it. Look directed, approachable, focused, warm. Those adjectives were not so far from my deliberate arrayment choices as a working woman, but now I had to be more deliberate – the place I find myself these days is not that place. In the library at the school bookfair, my last stop before the airport, the really nice moms and teachers did double takes at my double down. I said, “Yeah, I clean up real nice.”

At no point did I think I had to read up on the latest news from WGs. HTML 5 work, the only news I saw regularly, was finishing – it had hardly started at W3C when I was leaving, and I had my own not-public views on it at the time. I knew enough that there had been many organizational changes, and there was no point in trying to track them all as had been my responsibility when I was onduty. Instead, I trusted that I would still remember how to do my usual – pay attention and ask questions. (It worked beyond what I expected – more on that later.)

At the airport, in lady clothes with a tiny suitcase and bag, and only a smartphone for tech gadgetry, I felt almost part of the world again. I can go through a TSA line in my sleep, even with kids. To be unaccompanied was even easier. The female agents complimented my clothing, and I shared my sources. I headed to Butter for a record-fast waterless mani. (Usually, there is nothing on my hands but small cuts, dirt, food specks and wrinkles.) Got a cup at Vita, because Terminal C is for West Coast corridor traffic, and the coffee must be good. I got the last available seat on the plane – a middle seat in the last row – and had both of my travel neighbors attempt conversation. (Yes, both male, one much older. You guys are so easy to read, Vegas won’t bother to have a line on you.)

So, the mechanisms and interactions were very similar to the olden days. The adrenaline, which I hadn’t felt in some time, also came back. I was finishing NYT crosswords on the iPhone in 15 mins or less. All of them. I hadn’t ruined my stockings yet. There was something different, made by 7 years of absence/different purpose, but I had a sense of it being there next to me, as opposed to being in front of me. Not good, but better than the usual.

Clip-clapping, tickity-tacking to the taxiline (the shoes I was wearing had come out of retirement, and the heel caps had popped off, with nary a cobbler in sight), I got into a raggedy one and headed through the low dry landscape of SJC and the environs. The b&b was on the other side of Santa Clara, but was more than fine enough. I had my own entry, and a clawfoot tub. More importantly, the quiet. Soon enough, I was spending my second 20 on cabfare, and headed to the conference hotel, waiting for my former teammates to slowly peel off the AC dinner.

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Are things better?

Prompted by a thoughtful letter from a friend and former colleague, after reading a recent post.

Are things better? Well, not really. That said, I have started a skills class that uses both cognitive behaviour therapy, acceptance commitment therapy (kind of CBT 2.0) and other techniques based on mindfulness. My application of these techniques is still somewhat rustic; some of the techniques are more familiar and useful, and I find myself employing them to constructive ends. Counting, for example.

Other times, the notion of radical acceptance,  a critical piece of these therapies, seems anathema to who I am. Would I have been able to work where I worked, and do the things I did were I to radically accept the environments in which I worked? It seems, in some fundamental ways, that my radical rejection of the status quo was the key to my professional successes, if not my personal ones.

That is not to say that I don’t radically accept situations around me – it’s just that I am aware of my ambivalence. I sit and offer both radical acceptance and my reticence chairs next to me, and keep my hands, palms up, on my lap. It’s new, and difficult.

Another technique critical to CBT in terms of dealing with trauma is encouraged disassociation. This is another one of those tools that doesn’t feel natural. Trauma in me triggers confrontation, not hiding or pretending something doesn’t exist. Again, it’s a matter of degrees, of understanding that the dissociation is only used sparingly, and in a temporary manner  – to give a bit of breathing room and of space, to allow for the right solution to make itself more apparent.

My moments of peace and happiness to the point where I feel close enough to happy to be making up songs, are in the kitchen, and with the kids at bedtime. So I do get to have them, and they are delightful, and I can forget the other aspects of my life completely. Baking is just wonderful, and a good outlet for me. I enjoy making things that are appreciated, and the cakes I’ve made for my son’s school auctions (mostly in the form of year-long subscriptions) have allowed me to investigate recipes on behalf of the client family. And musically speaking, keeping a melody, a metered lyric, a rhyme scheme, and a child’s attention at bedtime, when they’d prefer to be jumping on the mattress, are distractions aplenty.

We have projects here and there; my son has sports, school activities, and a certain melancholy. My daughter has yet to decide whether to use her tremendous personal power for good or evil. We are about to embark on a large remodel which will create a family room, a new bedroom for my son (it will be the nicest room in the house, given that he will inherit both Doug fir built-ins
– a bookcase and a floor-to-ceiling cabinet), and will give up half of the spider park that is our two-car garage for a new bathroom. The lab technicians took 13 samples to determine whether we will be exposing lead and asbestos in the inevitable clamor of demolition. Plus the permits.

And yet, there it is. The sadness is still very much there. The lack of community. The sense that the only help I get with my depression requires payment. The things I miss.

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An Open Letter to Senator John Kerry

In 1984, I took part in my first political campaign, and voted in my first election. I stood holding a “Kerry for Senate” banner on the side of the pond in the center of the UMass Campus, and I stood with John Kerry in his run.

Twenty years later, I took part in my first Presidential Caucus, in WA state. Although pregnant, I got up on a bench and gave an impassioned speech about the Democratic Party and supporting John Kerry in particular. In the face of Deaniac Washington, our town went Kerry, as eventually did our state. I was asked to take a place in the stands behind him (big, blue and pregnant made for good optics for a pro-choice candidate forbidden to receive communion by the bishops of his own faith), met him, thanked him for running and campaigned until the end.

I am profoundly disappointed in the Senator today. The only way that the mandatory contraceptive coverage component of the Affordable Health Care Act is about religious freedom is about the freedom of the EMPLOYEES, not the employer. It is about basic health care for women, and having to provide it EVEN IF the religious beliefs of the employer include the notion that women were from the beginning, made wholly from the rib of a man and unequal to him.

Catholic Charities would like us to think that their mission is about service, but really, when it comes to the status of women in their world, it is about SUBSERVICE. But Bishops are not the rulers of our land. They do not make the laws, even though the rate at which they break them, against the most vulnerable amongst us is despicable.

Women do not deserve second class status if they work for a Catholic institution such as a university or hospital, because the LAW, which governs us all says that Women and Men are due equal protection under LAW.

Put another way. If AIDS drugs are covered by ACHA, would you then say that covering men with HIV would be at the discretion of the Catholic Church because they condemn homosexual activity? If blood transfusions are covered, would it then be at the discretion of a Jehovah’s Witnesses based charity to disregard those? What about the Christian Science Monitor? Can they forget about prescription drug coverage in its entirety?

If you cannot find the words that express the supremacy of the rights of equal protection over any individual religion’s dictates, take mine. This is about HEALTH CARE, and the right of anyone who works for any employer to not have their employer’s religious whims, caprices or beliefs infringe on what is their legal right to receive.

Women will never get the chance to vote for Catholic bishops – hell, they can’t even have give a homily! – but they will vote for Congresspeople and President. And they will vote the same way they obey the edicts of the pope when it comes to birth control. Ignoring them when it makes no sense, with the full support of the law.

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Some things that I need to write through, 2011

1. Ben goes one step forward, mama takes one disappointing step back

2. Presumed malfeasance

3. Miscommunication,

4. The politics of fear and its communications support structure

5. Simple pleasures

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Why I nearly hate Boden

Okay, I said it. That catalogue full of playful, colorful clothing for women? I am almost at the point of hating it. Not because I don’t like the clothes – no, they’re lovely pieces. What I don’t like is how they came about, and the guiding philosophy of its founder, Johnnie Boden.

Johnnie wants us mommies (or mums) to know he really cares about us, and our bodily insecurities . He wants us to feel pretty, to feel like we’re not “mutton dressed as lamb.” So he makes delightful, not-too-threatening clothing in terms of silhouette, palette, and implied intelligence, with the idea of making happy, pretty wives, happy to stay at home with children, or if we deign to work and deprive our children of the healthiest possible family structure, to communicate a sense that we’re really not all that important. We’re decorative, and we’re happy to be that way.

His career in helping slummy mummies began when Wall Street kicked his sorry arse back to the UK. And yet, he remains enamored of American capitalism. Evidently, a welfare state is to blame for people not picking up after their canine pets tend to their business streetside. What I wouldn’t give to see the trigger of his ire to be pure Tory.

Yes, I have flab, Johnnie, and yes, I don’t feel good about it.

But I feel a hell of a lot worse about being dismissed because of my gender; that there is nothing more threatening in our english-speaking culture than a woman who knows she is intelligent and isn’t so interested in hiding it, particularly if it might hurt some man’s feelings. I feel much worse about living in a neighborhood where placing priority on feeding your mind, particularly if your mind is awash in estrogen, might be about as evil as starving a baby. I feel much worse that your business is based on the premise that a pretty empire-waist frock will make me forget the things that genuinely vex and trouble me most.

In the end, I don’t hate clothing, and the catalogue itself has become better since they dropped the child-playmate q & a descriptors for each model in each layout. But I hate that it’s offered with a pat on the head and a “there, there” from someone I could easily think under the table.

p.s. this essay owes a great deal to Blue Milk’s dead-on Yummy Mummy post; here’s hoping to approach its thoughtfulness and writing.

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Mini epiphanies

It’s no secret that some things have taken longer for me to understand than others. Reading, no. Dating, yes. Understanding power, no. Making peace with what’s beyond my control? Oh, yes.

But when the puzzle piece finally finds its slot, because of or in spite of my best efforts, there’s no chance to go back. You know it – whatever that it may be – and there’s no way to unknow. Forgetting is different; it’s the gift of distraction. When reminded, your knowledge is again front and center.

In the same month I felt my heart like newly crushed gravel in my mouth, I discovered that I loved teaching young children about art. The rest of the world moves past the bloody rocks and mini-Matisses , like you do, but I know and will always know where one it ended, and another began.

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Three years

Three years ahead, behind me. Thicker, softer, more tired. Wiser, more careful with language, more understanding. Less money, from child to children.

Some things, like the children, aren’t plus-one experiences. It’s beyond increments. Transformative. But others are matters of degrees. Some are realizations which turn your perspectives permanently on their respective heads (true does not trump cruel, for example), while others are baby steps, formimg new habits, muscle memory rewrites.

But it’s been three years since I last met with my former colleagues, and the three years make all the more clear what was meaningful and valuable to me.

The local environment plays no small role – very few of the neighbors of “I’ve Got Mine”-ville share (ha!) what I treasure. My children remind me how much joy is in learning, discovering, and solving problems… Or how important it is to reach out to others without patting oneself on the back.

The workplace wasn’t utopia, except for the largely shared priorities and principles. The idea that money wasn’t capital. And that there was a time where respect was given to others, even if at times it was begrudgingly. I miss the reluctant but honest respect, or at least the chance to earn it, as well as anyone else.

It sounds great, doesn’t it? An environment where mutual respepct wasn’t an oxymoron. And that doesn’t begin to describe the people who made it so – their languages, their stories, and the chances we had to write, tell and listen to them together. For once, there was an entity which could accurately be described as a community.

So much has changed, in silken and sinewed degrees, and yet the positions, temperatures, none of these change the compass inside. The magnet of learning, of connection, will pull through the local scrambling, even if it’s not soon enough for my liking.

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