Friday, July 14, 2017

My Atheist Advice to Grieving Ten Year Olds

A few weeks ago, a little ten year old girl from our town died. I did not know her but news of the tragedy quickly spread. I was sitting with a few other moms at one of my son’s baseball games when I first heard. One of the women was passing around the memorial pamphlet from the Catholic church where services were held and the little girl attended school. The story was particularly disturbing to me because she had died during an asthma attack, when she began to vomit and then aspirated. Her mother was right there, driving her to the hospital, but it was too late. Since my son, Jack, has epilepsy and often vomits during his grand mal seizures, I live with the constant fear that this will happen to him, so hearing this instantly terrified and saddened me.
Soon the topic turned to the service--how beautiful it was and then how the priest was trying to comfort all her little schoolmates by saying that although they were all feeling angry and confused, it just wasn’t for them to understand why God had called her home. He had his reasons, none of which they might ever know, etc.
At that point, I had to detach myself from the conversation because the comments only became more maddening. I certainly wasn’t going to say what I was really thinking which was that situations like this should be one of the reasons that make people realize that there is no freaking God. And if there was one, we might rightfully call him an asshole. Do you not think that mother was praying as she frantically drove her car toward the hospital, her little girl dying in the back seat? Was her faith just not strong enough? Because the bible says that unless you are lacking faith, whatever you ask for in Jesus' name, you will be given. If she had survived, you can bet it would be hailed as a miracle and a testament to the power of prayer. Instead, she dies and it's just chalked up to God's mysterious ways. What a bunch of bullshit.
And comforting those little kids with a bunch of nonsensical stories about your imaginary LOVING father whose motives are so beyond our comprehension that you can’t question them is bullshit too. Of course you should question it kids! How COULD a loving God do such a thing? Why? To what purpose? To teach someone a lesson? Who? The mom? That’s pretty harsh, don’t ya think? Could YOU imagine doing that to one of YOUR children? You're damned right to question the bullshit you're being fed--I only wish someone had been around to answer my questions truthfully when I was your age.
So, here's what I, an atheist, would have said to those poor ten year old kids, the same thing I'd say to my ten year old son:
Listen, what happened to your friend is horrible and sad and it’s NOT fair. You have every right to be angry and hurt right now. Life ISN’T fair A LOT of the time. We do the best we can as humans to make it fair but some things are beyond our control. Everything on earth lives and dies.
This life is not a gift from some imaginary God who supposedly loves us yet subjects some of us to unimaginable horror in order to fulfill some secret plan. The truth about your existence and all that came before you is so much more awesome than any fairy tale. Those stories were made up by people who lived a long time ago and didn't have the knowledge of science and the earth that we have today. But just because your life wasn't a supernatural miracle, doesn't mean it's any less precious and wonderful and yes, fleeting—you only get one! And that's why it's important to make it count. That is why we should appreciate each and every day that we have with our family and friends.

Most of us will go on to live long and happy lives, but some of us, as you now see, won’t and that’s the truth of it. There is no magical afterlife. Death is the end of consciousness and although it's hard for us to grasp because it's hard to imagine NOT "being," you should know that in the end it will be something like going to sleep, except without dreaming. And when we are gone, the people we leave behind will cry, just like we are crying now. You should also know that in a way we DO live on-- in the minds and hearts of those who love us and whom we love. And just like some of you are now remembering little moments when your friend said or did something nice or funny, you should also realize that this is how the little things YOU say or do affect others in all kinds of special and wonderful ways. So go ahead and cry and cry, until you can’t cry anymore. Because it's terribly sad when someone dies, especially someone young like you. And then hug each other and be good to each other because THIS day, THIS moment is all we have for sure. And we are incredibly fortunate to be the only creatures on this earth who can actually appreciate the awesomeness of that.
If you are afraid of dying, which all of us are at times, remember that the real tragedy would be to never really LIVE. Here are some suggestions that will help you make sure you don't fall into that trap--just some things I've learned along the way;
Find what brings meaning to your life and then share it with those you love. Do good for goodness' sake and the inner peace of knowing that you did the right thing. Be honest in all your dealings. Make your word your bond and cherish your reputation. Always forgive. Listen. Pick your battles and be honest about your motives and if you must fight, make sure your cause is just. Remember to laugh--especially at yourself. Be a true friend. Help others less fortunate and comfort those in pain. Defend your friends, even when they are not there to hear you. Honor the memory of those you've lost by helping those who are left behind. Be curious and kind. If you love someone, tell them. Never trade truth for comfort. Question everything and don't let anyone ever tell you that anything is beyond questioning.

There Is Literally Nowhere You Will Not Be Judged On The Internet (and also, The Bitch is Back!)

OMG, y’all, I just can’t even right now.  Why are people such assholes?  I mean I get that people get into all kinds of arguments on Facebook and Twitter when discussing opinions or mistaken perceptions of reality--I’ve been there myself many times.  But Nextdoor?  Seriously?  Nextdoor is supposed to be the helpful, neighborly, recommendations and hey, anyone-have-a-cheap-dresser-for-sale place.  Can’t this one semi-social forum be safe from controversy?  Is there nothing sacred?!  Apparently not.  The following is a post I made, an innocent freaking post about some koi fish that had been left in my pond by my tenant (who not incidentally had skipped out on her last two months’ rent and left my husband and me to clean up the pigsty/garbage dump of a place that was/is our home).  Apparently, she had also left behind her fish, but neglected to let us know, so they’d been hanging out in my pond, slowly drowning in their own feces without proper oxygenation or food for almost a week before I discovered them.  I posted about it on FB to get some advice, which I received, and also posted on Nextdoor, thinking there might be someone locally who already had koi, understood koi, and maybe wanted to buy them for cheap.  Here’s my original post (I’m deleting my name and neighborhood info):  

Abandoned Koi!

Y'all my renter left behind her koi in my pond and I just realized it now, one week later!  If anyone is experienced with koi and would like to buy some koi cheap if they can retrieve them, please contact me.  There are maybe six adults that I've seen and at least a dozen babies.  The water is getting murkier b/c I can't turn on my pump for my waterfall or they will get sucked up and die--she had an alternate oxygenator I am going to try and hook back up temporarily.  If no one responds by this afternoon, I am going to call the Atlanta Koi rescue, thanks :).  You can text me at ***.***.****.
2d ago · 87 neighborhoods in General

Innocent enough, right?  I’m just looking primarily to save the koi.  Maybe I’ll make a few dollars but really, if no one experienced steps forward, I’m going to donate them and save their lives at least.  And most people were great, I received several text messages, advice, etc., like this:

Diane Giangrande, Kiveton Park/Brook Green·2d ago
The Atlanta Koi Club does rescue. If interested contact
1 Thank

And this nice guy:
William Farley, Brickleberry·1d ago
I have a empty Koi pond currently and would like to have some reasonable priced Koi. William Farley 678-***-****
1 Thank

And this nice person:
Suzanne Mahaney, Hamilton Commons·1d ago
Someone recently gave us 13 Koi after they decided to close their pond.  We caught them all with a fish net and they have been doing great in our pond for a few months now.  And we have no problem with them being sucked up in our waterfall.  They are the easiest pets we've ever had!
1 Thank
Basically, there were several, similar, nice responses.  But then there was this woman.  This woman, for some reason felt the need to try and publicly shame me for attempting to possibly make a few dollars in the process of saving the fish.  Like for real.  Like I was charging for a human child.

Melissa Marbourg, Cottages of Roswell·2d ago
Why would you sell them? Why wouldn't you just give them to somebody who could take care of them?
3 Thanks
And then, the less-offensive, subtle shaming of this woman who laments that the fish wound up being donated to a group outside of our neighborhood.  
Amy Longstreth, The Crabapple Chase·1d ago
Bummer, apparently all of these Koi went to a rescue, I would have ❤️ to have seen them stay in the vicinity, where they could be enjoyed by local families.

Wait, what? I was shocked there was ONE Koi rescue in the Atlanta area, this broad thinks I should be concerned with keeping the fish LOCALLY?  Seriously?  I can’t even.  
Look, moving is a stressful thing and having your tenant skip out on rent and discover they’ve left your place a disaster only adds to it.  Throw in the fact that I also had a flood in my home yesterday due to a leaky toilet that went undetected ALL NIGHT LONG and admittedly, I might be just slightly homicidal touchy at the moment, but I just had to respond to these bitches neighbors “right quick” as they say here in the south.  So, here’s what I wrote on Nextdoor, which is apparently another social media outlet rife with controversy and not helpful to my peace of mind and YES, I feel better now, thank you.  People are assholes but then again, so am I.  I really wanted to title it “The Bitch is Back!”
Susan Mehalick·Just now
Thanks everyone, I was overwhelmed by the response.  Here's what occurred shortly after my post:  The Atlanta Koi Rescue guy, Michael Walton, advised me to go ahead and immediately turn on my pump/waterfall since that would provide some immediate aeration.  He felt the adult fish would be strong enough to avoid the suction of the pump.  There might be one or two baby casualties but it was worth the risk, so that's what I did.  As predicted, most of the fish did avoid the pump, but one little guy didn't make it.  Oddly though, the pond became even murkier and filled with a foam--Michael says b/c there must have been some chemical in there.  At that point I was really panicking and agreed to have Michael come over after work and begin a rescue.  Michael was wonderful--he brought all necessary equipment, drained the pond down very low so we could identify and trap the fish, gave me tons of information and advice and even cleaned out the bottom of my pond for me all at his own time and expense.  As it turns out, and he says this is a common occurrence, many of the fish turned out to be goldfish and there were only two koi.  Since I am not prepared to care properly for the koi, I let Michael take them.  One of them had an ulcer which is apparently common.  He (it was a boy) will receive medical treatment and then both fish will be transferred/donated to a senior living facility with a humongous pond and many other koi.  At Michael's reassurance that the goldfish would be hearty enough to survive my pond's environment, I decided to let them remain and live out their happy little fish lives here with us.  If any of you are ever in need of someone knowledgeable and kindhearted to assist you with the care of your koi, I would highly recommend you contact Michael Walton with Atlanta Koi Rescue.  He has a FB page and can be reached at 770.895.9252.

Now, I'd like to take a moment to respond to Melissa Marbourg who asked "Why would you sell them? Why wouldn't you just give them to somebody who could take care of them?"  Dear Melissa, surely you read in my post that I asked for someone with knowledge/experience with koi and would ask only a small price in exchange for them actually "capturing" and safely transporting them to a new home.  This is b/c I did not want someone who just thought, hey, I'd like to have some koi to throw in my pond, who might very well endanger them by not capturing, transferring or keeping them properly.  I have no idea how much the koi would be worth exactly but knew enough to know that they can be very expensive and since my tenant skipped out on her last two month's rent and left me with tons of garbage cleanup and damage, I thought I could both save the fish AND make a few dollars.  Melissa, maybe money is not a concern for you and you are fortunate enough to not be in position where someone has put you on the hook for thousands of dollars of out-of-pocket expenses that were unanticipated or if they did, you had plenty of money readily available to compensate without blinking an eye. Unfortunately, I am not that person.  Everything we own, my husband and I worked hard to achieve and we work hard to maintain.  If money were no object, frankly, I would have kept the koi and called an expert to assist me in maintaining the pond for them.  Furthermore, if I didn't primarily give a sh*% about the welfare of the fish I would have just kept them or sold them to whomever wanted them, regardless of their experience.  So, I will have to respond to your question with a question of my own--why would YOU, Melissa Marbourg of Roswell Cottages, feel the need to attempt to publicly shame me about this?  Are you seriously that bored/judgemental/petty/mean-spirited (choose one)?  On Nextdoor?  

Also, Amy Longstreth, sorry but there were no local, Roswell Koi Rescue people to call and I am not in a position to nor am I inclined to set one up.  Yes, it would have been nice if they could have stayed local I suppose, but they're going to be enjoyed by some sweet, elderly people who will admire and appreciate them.  Do I feel badly about that?  No, I do not feel badly about it.
I saved the freaking fish people, I gave them away for a good cause.  I didn't make any money and I don't care.  Please get a life.  Jesus H.

That is all.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Why The Refugee Situation Is A Defining Moment and The Chance to Prove We’ve Grown As a Nation

A few years back, I had the privilege of employing some Bhutanese refugees from Nepal. These women had literally grown up in refugee camps after fleeing the violence and persecution of the supposedly peaceful buddhist regime of Bhutan.  The regime and their supporters did not accept the cultural and religious differences of the Hindus who lived in the southern regions. Their prejudice led to intolerance, which then led to discrimination, then violence and finally resulted in them being driven from their homes and farms, many beaten and even killed. They fled to neighboring Nepal, where they were allowed set up refugee camps.

Now, when I say camps, you should know that these were not lovely tents with running water and air conditioning or heat. They literally lived in mud huts of their own making and went into the forest to hunt and forage for food. They and their parents were in the camps so long because the Nepalese government refused to offer them citizenship and the international community debated and argued for years before Canada and the US stepped up to take them. Even then, the process was extremely slow and arduous and in the end, those who were able to work here had to come first and then pave the way to bring their elderly parents, all the while, hoping that they would be able to jump through all the right hoops and earn enough money before time ran out and one or both of their parents died in the camps.

What many people don't know about refugees who come to the United States, aside from the arduous screening process, and I certainly didn't realize until I came to know these women, is that in many cases, even the charities (in their specific case a Christian charity) require REPAYMENT of most or all of the relocation fees such as airfare (which is not discounted and in most cases as much as a first class ticket). This meant that each of them, husbands, wives, and children, began their new life in the U.S. with a substantial debt over their heads of thousands of dollars and in many cases, tens of thousands of dollars. In this case, the husbands were employed by Goodwill for minimum wage and I'm sorry to say, sometimes taken advantage of from a labor perspective because of their poor understanding of labor laws and their genuine and deep fear of making any waves and being sent back. (As a side note, they initially attempted to buy some things at Goodwill, until the supervisors there arbitrarily decided to make a new "rule" that employees AND THEIR FAMILIES were not allowed, EVEN IN THEIR OFF HOURS, to shop at the store. This resulted in me going in "undercover" to purchase things for their homes based on their descriptions.)

My friends were placed in the same housing complex as five other refugee families, 30 miles northwest of where a much larger group of I believe about 6,000 were living in Decatur, Georgia.  They lived in an impoverished and crime ridden area of town--the police were called to their apartment complex on a daily basis for guns, knife fights, drug busts, etc., but they were grateful for having an actual roof and running water and they never complained. Again, I can not stress enough the very real fear they had of making "trouble" and being sent back. They were always aware that their being here was conditional and despite my attempting to explain to them that they too had rights, they were guided by this fear.

The families worked diligently to make their tiny apartments homey and as nice as possible with the small amount of money they had. They laid inexpensive bamboo mats all over the carpets, which they were not used to and did not like. They gathered together nightly, on weekends and cultural holidays for tea and meals, and shared any and all resources to help one another survive, watching each other's children, buying groceries in bulk together, sharing one car amongst five families, the list goes on. Through it all they were always thankful--so thankful--constantly bringing me and others who helped them little gifts of food or apologizing for any perceived burden they imagined they had caused.

I could tell you many things about these people and how knowing them, becoming close to them, was one of the most powerful human experiences I have had the honor to have had, but my purpose in writing this is simply to beg you, literally in the name of humanity, do not buy into the hateful idea that the process of coming here as a refugee is an easy one or a haphazard one or taken lightly by any entity involved. My purpose is to implore you that we who have so much--no matter how many bills we are stressing over--can always make room for more, that that is what we are supposed to be ABOUT as a country. I'm not even a nationalist and Zeus knows I have my share of criticisms of our country, but if I have a shred of nationalism in me, it is because I really BELIEVE in the idea that we SHOULD be a nation of people who care, who love, who are attempting to write the BOOK on second chances.

I know many of us don't like to think about or be reminded of the fact that our ancestors stole this land to begin with and then enslaved or massacred millions upon it. Of course, we can never go back and make that right again and we know it, so some of us want to say it's in the past, it's not our fault, let it go. But is it really in the past? Are our hearts clean from the selfishness and greed that caused our ancestors to act in such a despicable way? We have the chance now in this crisis, in every crisis of discrimination--at home and abroad--to show that we are willing to shed that selfish, ugly part of ourselves that would have us turn our back on suffering and say "somebody else's problem." We have the chance to prove that we CAN BE that beacon of refuge, that we DO stand beside those words on the statue of liberty, that we ARE truly courageous--not just with bluster and military superiority that for most of us is far removed from our own personal situation--but with our hearts. So, I challenge you, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and my fellow atheists, be courageous with your hearts and dare to prove your love. If you are concerned about evil and hatred reaching us here, Ive got news for you, it's ALREADY here. It's in our own hearts, in every little selfish decision, every tiny or giant step away from the idea of unity and love and compassion, every broken promise, every turned back, every furtive glance away. We are not perfect but we have the chance to be MORE perfect every day and like Michelangelo, chip away at WASN'T David, until the beautiful form slowly emerges. If you want to fight evil, if you really want to fight it, then by all means have the courage to do so within yourselves because THAT is the ONLY way it will actually be defeated. Open your hearts and keep them open, in the face of fear and threats and intimidation, in the face of violence and lies and ignorance, be truly courageous and keep them open still.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Five Reasons Your Siblings Are Your Best Friends

HEADS UP:  If you are a single parent, you might not want to read this because it will probably only make you feel guiltier about not providing a brother or sister for your child.  This is not to say there are not still benefits to being an only child—they’re just not listed in this article.  So, maybe now would be a good time to just scroll on by or reheat that cup of coffee.  Come back later and check Facebook--love ya!.

Are they gone?  OK, good news parents of multiples--although you may be consumed by exhaustion from the endless juggling of schedules and/or depressed about the constant drain on your bank account, put down that razor blade and take heed! You can now feel good about your decision to willingly engage in the insanity of attempting to raise multiple humans have two or more kids because there is actual research to back you up.  So, despite the bickering and occasional slammed doors, here are five plausible reasons why siblings are your best friends:

1.  They make the long haul easier.

We tend to think of our parents as the people we've known the longest but in actual length of years spent together, our siblings are the ones we wind up knowing for the greatest duration of time.  As Alena Hall puts it in The Huffington Post, siblings "mark our most enduring relationship.” Think about it--if you started having kids in your mid-20s, as many do, and you can expect to live to about 80, then your children will have known each other all the 55 years you were around with them, plus, if they live to about 80 themselves, they will have known each other an additional 25 years beyond you. Even if you started later, the odds are your kids will still know each other longer than anyone else. 

And in their old age, your kids may be happier because they have each other.  Research has shown that elderly people who still have a living brother or sister, report greater degrees of happiness and contentment, even if they don't see each other often.  Just knowing that there is someone alive on this planet that you share a true lifelong bond with is comforting in a way that is difficult to describe but incredibly powerful.

2.  They can make you healthier.

There is some encouraging research out of Europe that suggests having a brother or sister can actually benefit you mentally and physically.  For example, children with older siblings tend to struggle less with obesity.  One reason may be the increased exercise experienced because they have someone to run around and play with  (we're not going to get into whether controlling for video game obsession was done--we'll just let common sense answer that one.)

3.  They can teach you how to be a better partner in adult relationships.

Again, this one just seems like common sense but the experts back up this claim.  As Jeffrey Kluger writes in TIME, "[s]isters teach brothers about the mysteries of girls; brothers teach sisters about the puzzle of boys."  (I would like to add to this by stating that in my own purely anecdotal evidence, during my dating years I observed that guys who had sisters were markedly more in tune with a woman's needs and demonstrated more empathy overall.)

4.  They teach you how to share resources without being a total jerk.

OK, here is where I admit that I am the parent of an only child and would have left the room myself, if I weren't actually writing this piece.  I will also now admit to you what I cringe to even say—yes, my son struggles with sharing.  This was never more evident to me than when I married my second husband and we moved in with him and my youngest step-daughter (my son is 14 and she is 15).  There is no getting around it.  Despite what you SAY to a child about sharing and being flexible, kids with brothers and sisters are much better at it.  Now hold up, you say--my kids fight about clothes and TV programs and mysteriously disappearing leftovers all the time!  Yes, that is true--my stepdaughters often fight over clothes and who "borrowed" what from whom and it can even get pretty ugly, but the bottom line is that they still complain a hell of a lot less than my son when they can't have that extra $20 or there are no more Oreos, or they have to give up some space for visiting relatives.  And that’s all I want to say about that because it depresses me for my son. Let's move on.

5.  They save money on therapy to get over the damage you did to them.

Face it, no matter how good of a job you do, you are bound to screw up somehow and there will always be at least one thing that your kids look back and vow to do differently with their own children.  And yes, of course there will be treasured memories and little idiosyncrisies or goofy traditions that they will want to repeat as well.  Having a brother or sister to share in these memories and validate their experiences can be extremely valuable on an emotional level.  And this validation can help give you the confidence to face life’s challenges.  It’s the feeling that you’re OK, you’re not alone in your experience of the world and there is always somewhere where you truly fit in—more importantly, your “home base” still exists as long as one of your siblings is around to bear witness.

Overall, if you can put up with them throughout childhood, brothers and sisters may really be the best friend you will ever have.  And with that, I think I’ll go give my sister a call. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Note to My Christian & Republican Friends--Stop Voting Behind My Back! (And an explanation as to why I'm so angry with you).

A while back, when one of my Christian friends was unfriending me on Facebook despite my offering to block her from my atheist posts, she made the comment that she’d come to her decision based on the fact that even though she wouldn’t be able to see the posts that were offensive to her, in a way, it would be like I was just talking behind her back. I felt she made a valid point and I respect her decision to this day. As time has gone on though, there was always something about that sentiment that I kept coming back to, some aspect of it that I intuitively knew I was not grasping.
Meanwhile, I’ve been asked by another Christian friend why I can’t just not be such an activist, why I seem to wake up with an “agenda.” And this I do not deny. I clearly do have an agenda, several in fact, and am quite doggedly determined to promote them whenever possible.
But then, suddenly, the light bulb went on. It was so obvious and simple, it almost sounds stupid now—I’m so angry with evangelical Christians and republicans these days –I have such a clear agenda of exposing and ridiculing their behavior because it’s as if THEY are not just talking behind my back and the backs of those I love and care about, but they are VOTING behind our backs.
These people, some of whom I truly love on a personal level, are walking into the voting booth, year after year and voting against the LGBT community, against the environment so crucial to the survival of our race, against the right to have medical coverage for all Americans, against the rights of the children of illegal immigrants and against science education. And I am furious with them, no matter how much I love some of them personally.
So does this affect me? Let me explain:
  • I have friends and family who are LGBT. These people do too. Yet, they will nicely and politely befriend or interact with these people to their face, yet disparage them and VOTE AGAINST THEIR RIGHTS behind their back. They are mysteriously silent when you post something pro-gay marriage or LGBT rights, though they'll gladly speak out and argue with you about fiscal policy or the fake scientific "debate" about global warming. Even the non-evangelicals, the non-denominationals are suspiciously quiet on these things. Don't assume because they are nice to you and joke with you and share a meal with you that they don't still think you are going to hell and that your way of life is a threat to them, that they will not blink an eye voting your rights away or expressing that belief when you're not in the room listening. Go ahead, push them a little and ask. I did. I pushed Andy Stanley's people on the gay rights issue. Boy, they wanted to dodge it but when push came to shove, they're agin' ya my friends.
  • It should go without saying that the environment is crucial to all of us. Yet, evangelical Christians and other republicans would do away with the few laws we do have to protect it, in fact, the entire EPA. Indeed, while they are busy making laughingstocks out of America and adding to the general feeling of contempt abroad with their ignorance about global warming, the clock is ticking and we are already seeing the effects scientists have been warning us about. And why? Because number one they feel that this earth was put here for us and God will destroy or not destroy it as part of His Plan and IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT WE DO ANYWAY. Secondly, because they believe that this world is unimportant—it’s just a proving ground to get to the eternal afterlife, where we won’t have to worry about things like the environment anyway. Think about it like this--if you know you're inheriting billions of dollars in a few years, would you really worry if you squandered some of your cash today on some needless merchandise? You'd be less inclined to save for the future and safeguard those savings for your children, wouldn't you?
  • We are the only developed democracy that does not provide universal health coverage as A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT to its people. People literally DIE here because they are poor. They go broke here because of medical bills and do not seek the treatment they desperately need because they can’t afford it. I am one of those people.  I'm not going to go into my medical history but trust me, I am.  I have also never had a mammogram because even if I could get a free one somewhere through a program, I wouldn’t be able to afford anything that was uncovered anyway. (I know, I know, you can argue with me about this later.) I haven’t been to the dentist in years because I can not afford to go. My son, who DOES have medical coverage and has epilepsy, asthma and ADHD requires medical treatment and medication that requires large sums of out of pocket expenses. Yet, my evangelical Christian friends vote against universal health care, they want to repeal the small progress we have made with the Affordable Care Act and privatize Medicare and Social Security, which would devastate people like my mother. (It’s also important to note that in this case at least, they are voting against their OWN self-interest, so hypnotized by the GOP they are.)
  • My evangelical friends think I’ve committed murder for having an abortion—and have gone so far as to tell me so and remind me of the everlasting burning in hell scenario that awaits me. I can’t have children anymore, but just because it doesn’t affect me personally, doesn’t mean I no longer care about the millions of women, including the women in my family and amongst my friends who find themselves in such a circumstance. Indeed, beyond abortion, a woman’s right to receive accurate, unbiased information and access to services and the right to make decisions about her own body is something that my evangelical Christian friends would and have gladly tried to strip away. (Note: I will say though that I will concede the point that there is a valid argument to be made over the point after which a zygote, then a fetus should be granted the rights of personhood, but such arguments can not and should not be based on the non-scientific theory of a “soul.”)
  • Evangelical Christians continue to attempt to insert their religious mythological beliefs into our public school system and prevent the instruction of valid scientific fact. Just look at the school districts that have been infected this past year alone all over the country with attempts to add ID/creationism into the curriculum! Studies have now proven that science teachers in many areas are SCARED of teaching the truth about evolution or touching on the subject except in the lightest fashion, because of the backlash from Christian parents. You are trying to actively dumb down our science education at a time when we are already lagging WAY behind in the world. This is a danger to be reckoned with, believe me.
  • Finally, as many of you know I have a sort of “step”-daughter who is Mexican. These evangelical friends, while telling me how cute and sweet she is, walk into that voting booth and vote to strip her of her rights to receive an education, access to health services, to have her family stay together, etc., because one of her parents came her illegally. Christians! Christians are doing this.

So you see, these sweet Christian and republican friends have been committing the ultimate betrayal in my mind—they’ve been one way to all our faces and another when they walk into that voting booth. And they do it all with the full belief that they are on the side of righteousness for God. Their justifications are found in the bible after all and we all know that the bible is infallible. And you wonder why I think religion is such a dangerous thing.
Here’s the deal. I have friends who believe all kinds of what I think are silly, nonsensical, pseudo-scientific things and I have no problem with that, as ridiculous or misled as I feel that thought process may be—because they’re not trying to take away my rights, to destroy the earth for MY son, to marginalize and demonize My friends and family. If you don’t want to educate yourself about evolution or global warming or health care for whatever reason, including laziness or sheer willful refusal, that is your right—you have the right to be as ignorant and/or stupid as you’d like and I’ll even defend that right. But do me a favor and don’t suggest that it is me who is talking behind your back because I’m not. I’m right here, saying it to your face and when you walk into that voting booth don’t pretend that you are being an honest friend to your gay cousin, your neighbor, your sister, MY son or ME, when you would gladly strip us of our dignity and the right to equality in this country. Don’t pretend that you’re not putting the screws to me, my son, and my family when you ignorantly and yet, deliberately refuse to look at facts or stand up for our rights. I’m not trying to take away your right to your childish beliefs. I’m not trying to take away anything of yours, except your blinders.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Back in the Day--My Personal Anita Hill Sexual Harassment Story

I’ve heard a few journalists make reference to Anita Hill lately, drawing a parallel between the Clarence Thomas hearings and what’s going on now with Herman Caine. This brings up some very personal feelings for me-- because I was actually being sexually harassed during the Anita Hill trial.

I was in my early 20s, living in Los Angeles, and working as a traveling executive assistant to the senior vice president of a small, privately-owned, health-related, consulting firm. The company was founded and run by my boss Vernon, and his friend Mitchell (not their real names), a couple of good ol’ boys from a small town in west Texas and their mutual ex-girlfriend, Jane (another fake name). Ironically, the remaining majority of employees which comprised the administrative and management staff, were a group of Mormon friends, totally unrelated to the owners by blood or background. I was one of only two sort of token outsiders, if you will, without ties to either group. I discovered later that it was Mitchell’s idea to hire the Mormons because he felt they would be easily manipulated but still honest. I won’t even begin to dissect that.

I had originally been hired as an administrative assistant to one of the Mormon managers—a very nice, honest, respectful, bright and funny guy. I made a good salary and was relatively happy being part of an upbeat, hardworking team that all pitched together when it was crunch time to deliver our “product” to the customer.

Vernon and Mitchell (his BFF and the company’s owner) were only in our south bay office about two-three times per month, so they were known but not terribly familiar and I’d met both of them briefly. Vernon had made it a point to introduce himself one day and spend some time at my desk to chat, ask a few questions about my background and tell me about himself, like the fact that he was married with no less than five children. I, not incidentally, was recently engaged to my ex-husband.

Not long after that meeting, I was called into Amy, the office administrator’s office (team Mormon) to say that Vernon’s assistant had been let go and he had personally requested that I fill her position. My first reaction was to be extremely flattered and taken aback. I hadn’t been with the company very long at all and to already be receiving a promotion was great but a little weird. I knew there were at least two other assistants who might be in line for that job before me. But I let my ego take the boost and considered that maybe my work and positive, can-do attitude somehow was that impressive.

The job came with a significant increase in pay, and meant I’d be traveling, literally Monday through Friday, around the country with Vernon, flying first class everywhere and staying at the best hotels in every city. It also meant I would be spending a lot of time away from my then fiancĂ©. I asked to have some time to talk it over with him, went home, had the discussion and we both agreed it was a great opportunity and would bring in much needed income—worst case scenario, I’d give it a year and we’d re-evaluate. I went to work the next day and accepted the position. I would pack my bags and be ready to leave on my first trip Monday morning.

Down the Rabbit Hole I Go

Oddly enough, before I began to work for Vernon, Mitchell’s assistant got sick and I was sent with him for a two-day trip instead. This meant flying on the corporate Learjet and meeting our company’s pilots on my first trip. To say I was intimidated would be an understatement. After all, I was still just a girl from an upper middle class Jersey suburb. The closest I’d come to wealth by that point in my life was visiting my uncle who had a three-car garage and a summer house at the shore. Of course, Mitchell hadn’t come from money either—in fact, he’d had a much more humble beginning than I had. But what he lacked in upbringing, he more than made up for with extravagance, eccentricity, and sheer boastfulness about his nouveau riche status. With all the subtlety of a baboon (and I apologize profusely to the baboon community), Mitchell spent the entire flight telling me his rags to riches story-- how he mercilessly squashed anyone in his path to the top and the joy he took in now periodically returning to his home town to rub all their faces in his extreme and awesome wealth. As he explained, there wasn’t much he couldn’t buy—most anything, or anyone could be his if he really wanted it because, after all, he had A LOT of money. He told me all this while drinking a bottle of Dom Perignon at 40,000 feet. I politely declined his multiple offers of champagne, wine, beer, and later to join him in his room. He flat out propositioned me and when I turned him down, laughed and said that I might be a young idealist in love but I too could eventually be “cracked” in time. I literally had to push him away from my hotel room door later that evening.

To say that I was freaked out was an understatement. What the hell had I gotten myself into? I wanted to call my boyfriend but knew, of course, that he would flip out and demand I come home on the next flight—something I wasn’t even sure I could accomplish without spending a couple thousand dollars out of pocket. But money wasn't the only reason why I stayed. I stayed because I was just young enough and just stupid enough to reason away this red flag by saying to myself that this was Mitchell, not Vernon, and that I might never actually BE in this position again anyway, so why throw away the chance at this exciting job with a huge paycheck over one crazy stupid flight on a Learjet with a nut job--even if the nut job was the president? The next evening we were due to meet up with Vernon and I would be whisked away from this creepy scene anyway. So I went to bed and told no one.

When we finally did meet up with Vernon and the three of us had dinner together, he was surprisingly and noticeably protective of me and seemed to settle Mitchell back into his place with a simple “whoa now, Mitchell, go easy on Susan, she’s a good girl” style. And so I began to think that this first incident was just a blip on the radar and I'd been right to keep it all to myself.

At first, Vernon was nothing but polite, opening doors and looking out for me in that sweet, polite, Texas/southern-raised boy sort of way. But very early on he did begin complimenting me a bit too much, in a way that made me uneasy. Of course my Jersey girl way of handling uneasy, was to sort of push back and use humor—for example, Vernon would say something about me being beautiful and I would roll my eyes and say something like “OK Vernon, now would you please made a decision about what we should tell Client X about the heart center opening next month?”

It went on like this for a while and truthfully, if being told I was beautiful a bit too often was all there was to it, despite the fact that it was entirely inappropriate, I could have probably handled it. But it got worse. Vernon began to tell me that he had feelings for me, then that he was in love with me, and THEN that if only I would realize that this young boy I was engaged to could never give me what I deserved and let HIM make my dreams come true, buy me a house, give me everything, etc., I would see how happy we would be. And then he started trying to touch me. And my sassy little Jersey girl attitude didn’t dissuade him any more. He also became insanely jealous and possessive of me in the most embarrassing ways—even clients were noticing. We’d be out to dinner with a local heart surgeon and instead of discussing business, Vernon would be devoting his attention to me, clearly behaving as if I was his girlfriend.

Enter Anita Hill. As all this was coming to a head and I was trying to reason with Vernon, reminding him of his wife and kids, the fact that I loved my boyfriend, the age difference, and the fact that I did not love him back, hoping that he would sort of wake up and get over it, and I would be able to keep my job and this would all go away, Anita Hill was testifying about the harassment she’d suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas. No matter where we went those few months, you couldn’t escape the hearings and neither Vernon nor I could escape the comparison. In every VIP lounge, in every newspaper, over every client dinner discussion, the topic of sexual harassment was suddenly there, in a way it had never been before. And Vernon’s reaction to Anita Hill's testimony was what finally began to change my perspective on everything.

We began to argue about the hearings in a way that was only thinly disguising that we were really arguing about OUR situation. Vernon was of the opinion that Anita Hill was making a big deal out of literally nothing and should shut her mouth. He simply could not see how Thomas’ position of power over her was what made his behavior wrong. As far as Vernon was concerned, Anita Hill was just a whiny, feminist bitch and he as much as said so.

Meanwhile, back around the time things had gone from Vernon complimenting me to him propositioning me, I DID start confiding in our office administrator Amy (remember, team Mormon), whom I’d become friends with and trusted very much. I would call Amy from my five-star hotel room, which oddly came to feel like a series of high-priced prison cells, every night and give her the day’s litany of offenses.

Early on in these discussions, Amy confessed that Vernon’s request for me to be his executive assistant had consisted of a phone call to her stating “I want that cute little new girl.”

Of course, this put Amy in a horrible position and she felt terrible for not warning me at the outset. As administrator she was, I suppose, legally bound to do something about this—remove me from this situation at least. But, as I said, we were friends by then, we were both young, both in positions somewhat beyond what we’d been trained or prepared for, and we both knew that this could very well be the end of HER job as well as mine. Still, we knew that at some point, one of us was going to have to do something and it wasn’t going to be pretty or fun. It was me who kept stalling for time to think of a way out. Meanwhile, I was feeling worse and worse about the fact that I hadn’t shared any of this with my boyfriend.

And then, one day in Mel’s diner, not far from the entrance of the Golden Gate Bridge, as Vernon was trying to feel me up under the table with his foot, I realized that despite my attempts at “humorously” shutting him down, I’d actually been implicitly agreeing with Vernon’s point of view about Anita Hill. My trying to hide the situation, reason away the situation, use humor to deflect the situation and piling the stress of it all upon myself to come up with a solution that still left everyone’s feelings and jobs in tact was my way of saying that to do otherwise would make me one of those whiny feminist bitches who had to go run and tell instead of just handling it herself. And then, finally, I began to be angry with Vernon for putting me in this ridiculous position to begin with.

Of course, anger is often the motivating force behind courage and that is what I found from watching Anita Hill. As I sat in my last airport VIP lounge, watching that brave, intelligent, and courageous woman speak out I knew what I had to do.

Coming Forward

That Monday, instead of getting on a plane, I showed up at the office with a written statement. I took the company’s accountant (team Mormon) in with me to the company CFO (the ex-girlfriend you may recall of both Vernon and Mitchell) and gave her the letter, outlining the harassment I’d been undergoing and requesting a transfer back to the main office with no change in salary. Intuitively, I felt the need to have a witness to the discussion in case things didn't go down in my favor. I had her sign the letter and kept a copy for myself. Then I took the rest of the day off and returned the following morning to hear their decision.

I arrived to find that a new position of "Manager of Executive Offices" had been created especially for me and I would now be reporting directly to Mitchell. That did not exactly inspire confidence but I had already come this far. I just needed to be brave a while longer and hopefully the weirdness would all blow over. [insert laughter here]

Immediately however, it was clear that Mitchell wasn’t interested in having anything “blow over.” In the few phone calls I had with him the next week, the formerly flirty Mitchell was decidedly cold and downright rude. In fact, you could feel the tension in the air all around the firm. Team Mormon was noticeably on my “side” if you will—offering whispered “hang in there’s” and knowing, sympathetic smiles. Team Vernon, of which only Linda was actually present, avoided me like the plague. Of course Vernon and I did not speak at all.

On Friday, I was informed that my salary would be cut by $1,300 month, since, they argued, that portion was really considered a per diem for traveling assistants (no such documentation of that existed). When I informed Mitchell via phone that this was a violation of the agreement Linda had signed, whereby I would not be financially penalized for bringing forward the complaint, I was fired and told to leave the building immediately. One of the other assistants was ordered to see me out and make sure I didn’t talk to anyone else on the way. Of course she was team Mormon too and made it plain that she would do no such thing, so she was fired on the spot, as well.

Before I left, I found an employment lawyer in the yellow pages (remember those?), and drove directly to his office, where we filed a wrongful termination suit based on sexual harassment.

If I thought the nightmare was over, it was only just beginning. Anita, hang in there!

Try to Avoid Court if You Are Not Wealthy

My attorney, who took my case on contingency, was a very sweet guy who I think actually went into law for noble reasons, rather than a quest for easy money. He wasn’t much older than me really and I don’t think either one of us knew what we were getting in to, but I’ll only speak for myself on that. I DEFINITELY did not know what I was getting in to. Mitchell and Vernon hired the priciest downtown Los Angeles firm they could find, who then assigned their most aggressive, cut-throat female attorney to the case. Think L.A. Law vs. first year lawyer from the public defender's office. To make matters worse, I suppose because my guy's office was so shabby, despite being much closer, all meetings and depositions were done at their attorney's shiny office in a downtown high-rise with paid parking.

Of course, I had imagined Vernon and Mitchell would lie, but only in the sense that they would simply deny the allegations really. It didn’t occur to me that they would actually fabricate stories or take actual incidents that we were planning to present as evidence and completely turn them around to where I looked like a salivating, man-hungry whore. Oh, how I laugh at my naivete. For example, there had been an incident at a client’s office in Alabama where a young man who worked at the building we were having our meeting at, offered to help carry my things to the car, which I thankfully let him do. Of course as soon as we were out of earshot, Vernon became ridiculously jealous and angry, saying, amongst other bizarro things, that when I was on the road with him, I was “his girl.” It was really insane and I clearly told him as much at the time. Yet, he went on about it for at least two hours, how much it bothered him to see me walking beside “that boy.” It was a good example of just how obsessed he'd become and how powerful he imagined he was over me.

Well, during the deposition process, his lawyer (Miss Friendly) brought the incident up before we ever got to—only in their version of events, instead of Vernon being jealous, I was gushing about the young guy and saying I wanted a “piece of his fine ass!” (A phrase I’ve never used in my life, thank you very much.)

And when they didn’t have real stories to twist, they just made stuff up—like saying that I’d been twice warned by Mitchell to dress more conservatively. As if!! Mitchell would have preferred I wore fishnets and a g-string in his presence!

Long story short, it was horrible. I remember glaring down the long conference table at Vernon during one of the deposition days but he wouldn’t look at me. I felt like maybe if I could just get him to make eye contact, he’d feel so guilty about what he was doing that he’d confess and tell the truth. I wondered if his wife knew or if they’d managed to keep it all from her.

I went home crying every day and finally called my lawyer and told him to go ahead and settle for whatever, I didn’t care anymore, I just wanted to make it stop. We took a five- figure settlement, the lawyer took his fee and it was done. But everywhere I went after that, I was afraid people would find out what had happened and suspect I was really to blame after all. In that way, I carried the shame for a long time. I didn't feel courageous then, just embarrassed and stupid. In other words, I missed the point entirely at the time.

It was a humiliating experience that I have often said I would never subject myself to again. Of course, years of distance and the wisdom of age has a way of putting things into perspective. There are definitely ways in which I could have handled things differently, knowing what I know now, but which I simply wasn't capable of at the time. For example, rather than merely using humor to try and deflect Vernon's advances, when he persisted, I might have been much firmer, if not downright mean. But knowing what I know now, includes being older, wiser, more secure, and living in a culture that now recognizes the validity of sexual harassment and punishes those who abuse their power over others in this way. Still, even if I were in that position today, knowing all I do, with a son to care for in a bad economy, might I be even more likely to avoid the confrontation and try to deal with it myself? Thankfully, I’m not and thankfully for so many women, Anita Hill opened up a dialogue in this country about an issue that almost every woman who works with men has had to deal with on some level. Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention that not long after our settlement I was contacted by Vernon’s former assistant--turned out I wasn't the first--total shocker.

The fact is Anita Hill stood up there in front of all those men and bravely, calmly, and intelligently spoke the truth. She stood up to a very powerful and popular man who just happened to be a misogynistic asshole and a disgrace to his position and she might not have had him unseated, but she paved the way for the rest of us to speak out and stand up for ourselves and our right to be safe from sexual harassment in the workplace. And thanks to Anita Hill, sexual harassment policies are now standard at even small companies and many women no longer have to feel trapped in a Mad Men world. We still have a way to go, but we are light years from where we were before on this issue, thanks to her. Because it’s not a joke when your boss is putting you in a position where you feel you have to basically choose between unemployment and self respect.

So yeah, I was sexually harassed during the Anita Hill trial and I’m not embarrassed to admit it any more. Thank you, Ms. Hill.