Tuesday, June 28th, 2011
This is a piece I just did for the It Gets Better Project.
If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a website designed to reassure gay kids that – although they may feel ostracized now - their lives WILL get better.
Yeah, it gets better.
But what about when some armored tank with ears is escorting you, face first, into your locker or a ditch? Or some charm-challenged cheerleader who can barely spell D-E-F-E-N-S-E goes on the offense on Facebook? Is it really a crapload of comfort to have people tell you that, as ADULTS, their lives got better?
Oh, it’s absolutely true –once you get out of high school, or in some cases college, things just about always turn around. In fact, most bullies, once they grow up, end up realizing what jagholes they were (or they score a mug shot for selling meth from an ice cream truck, but at that point it’s pretty clear which of you is the winner, here).
But a few years from now is like a freaking lifetime, right?
Before it gets better, you’ve gotta live through this year. This month. This. Rotten. Day. And I’m guessing you’re more concerned about how you can handle your life RIGHT NOW.
I certainly was when I was your age. And unfortunately, I didn’t have any tips on how to handle it. You wanna know how I coped? Have you ever seen the old TV series (or the movie) Bewitched, about the woman who was a witch married to a mortal? Well, at home, alone in the basement of our house, I would pretend to be her mother, Endora.
Yeah, I pretended to be a 60-year-old female witch. Shut up. I didn’t say it made sense. But you can only pretend to be sick and stay home from school so many times; eventually, you run out of diseases. And this helped me deal with the pantsing, the threats, the humiliation that made my childhood so relentlessly miserable. Swathed in a bedspread (which was my approximation of the caftans Endora wore – hey, when you’re eight, you gotta improvise), I would close my eyes, envision a better life, and try to cast magical spells.
Believe it or not, that helped when I was a little kid. But when I was 14, or 16, I couldn’t exactly run home and wrap a bedspread around me. So I had to find new ways to deal.
Some worked; some didn’t. And I want to share the ones that did, so you can have an easier time of it than I had. Because your life can get better now.
#1) Accept the haters.
You could be Oprah Winfrey, saving the world and tossing free Pontiacs from your private jet, and still some people will hate you. That’s life.
But accepting that is harder than you might think. Being unliked can make you feel like a big, fat failure. But the moment you understand that some people are just insecure, that some thrive on debasing others in order to elevate themselves, that you can’t win the hearts of people whose hearts are closed, you will have less judgment on yourself. And you should, because it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. They have their own drama going on.
This was a tough one for me, because I’m a people pleaser. But the moment I accepted that I was never gonna win over about 30% of the people in my world, I immediately became 30% happier. Screw the people who don’t see how awesome you are.
#2) Have a big mouth.
If you’re being harassed, be it physically or verbally or via Facebook/text/etc., tell someone. Tell your parents. Tell your principal or counselor or your favorite teacher. Tell anyone in a position of power. Don’t be ashamed.
And if the first person you tell doesn’t do anything, tell someone else.
When I was a kid, nobody sued the school. Nobody got the principal fired. We had no choice but to take it, and then apologize to the bully for making him hit us.
But now, you have resources. You can file a complaint. You can get the police involved. You can threaten legal action. This may not make you any more popular, but it probably won’t make you any less, because at the very least, people will be afraid to tangle with you.
#3) Carry a Big Stick.
Turning the other cheek is an inspirational notion. If you’re Jesus. As spiritually evolved as it may be to silently bless someone’s fist as it heads for your face, it’s not exactly the most effective deterrent.
Bullies are only brave because you’re not. The minute you stand up to them, 99% of them back down. And the 1% that don’t should be reported – see #2 – before they end up selling meth from an ice cream truck.
Self-defense courses like Karate, Aikido, etc., are a powerful deterrent to violence, because as soon as a bully sees that you can protect your ass, he’s highly unlikely to tangle with you. Bullies prey on the weak, the defenseless, the fabulous – not the kid who can be standing with his or her foot on their face in 2.5 seconds.
Of course, bodily contact isn’t for everyone. My idea of hand-to-hand combat as a kid involved two G.I. Joes and some highly inappropriate battle moves. If you’re not comfortable taking self-defense training (or you don’t have a school near you), there’s another option.
There was a guy in my middle school who routinely tried to pick fights with me, and I didn’t know what to do. Doing his homework had worked – but only for a while – and I was running out of options. So I tried something my sister’s boyfriend, who was a cop, had told us to do if we were ever abducted.
The next time he tried to get me to fight him, during gym class, I went apes***. Right there, on the soccer field, I started screaming. And carrying on. Acting like I’d lost my freaking mind.
This can be surprisingly effective. It not only makes them think that you’re insane and therefore potentially dangerous, but it draws a lot of attention to them. Bullies don’t like public attention when they’re not in control of it.
I had to do this a couple more times to assure him that I was indeed mad, bad and dangerous to know, but it worked. He never tangled with me again. And there was something liberating about expressing all that pent-up rage.
#4) Carry a big computer.
Cyberbullying is not only super passive-aggressive, it’s super stupid. People leave a digital footprint everywhere they go on the internet, and every snotty/threatening thing some bully posts or sends you can be copied and filed away forever.
If somebody is emailing or texting you mean notes, or posting reputation-smearing comments on Facebook, or setting up a website designed to demean you, YOU HAVE PROOF. Don’t give them the satisfaction of responding to it – that only fans the flames and can be used against you. Just save everything – the texts, emails, screenshots of web pages, etc. Print them out. Then block their phone number and email address, and report the offender to the school – and, if necessary, the police.
The punishment can be severe – expulsion from school, jail time, lawsuits against the family of the bully, etc. You have the power to do far more damage to them than they could ever do to you.
#5) Find Your Posse.
Feeling comfortable in your skin is all about finding the people who recognize how amazing you are. And they’re out there.
I was a total band nerd. And while playing the trumpet didn’t do that much for my popularity in school as a whole, it gave me a place to be myself. It was a safe space, where I could let my inner superstar run free and bond with other kids who shared my passion. You’d be surprised how much acceptance you can get from guys who play the clarinet and girls who play the tuba.
There are arts and academics and sports organizations within your school. And, often, gay/straight alliances that bring together allies from both worlds. Find the one that makes your heart sing. And you’ll find your posse. It may not make you prom queen, but it will make you happy.
Finally, if you try all these tips and still feel alone, or hopeless, know that there is always someone to turn to. The Trevor Project’s hotline is open 24 hours a day. 1-866-4-U-TREVOR. Call it. Or go online to find out how they can help.
I hope these tips make your life a little easier – today. Because even though it will get better as you get older, why wait? Make it get better now.
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Tuesday, June 28th, 2011
I’ve been writing articles for CNN, The Advocate and the Huffington Post. I’ll link to them here once they’re up on those respective sites!
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Thursday, June 9th, 2011
I have an Atheist friend.
I know, I’m amazing. There should be a bust of me at the Museum of Tolerance.
As a spiritual seeker, I personally believe in God. And I’ve always had an easier time with Agnostics, who are really just hedging their bets as if the hereafter was a roulette wheel. But as an enormously forbearing and open-minded person (see above), I respect everyone’s beliefs. Even the stupid ones. And I’ve really come to appreciate the Atheistic moral code – which, although it sounds like an oxymoron, is surprisingly not.
My friend Max and I argue frequently, not only about the existence of God, but about the practical realities of the Bible, like whether Jesus would have worn open-toed shoes in the middle of the desert. (I mean, come on, it’s filthy out there.)
But I cannot argue with his desire to invalidate the existence of a higher power in a world where there is SO much suffering and inequity. After all, God hasn’t exactly appeared on top of the Hollywood Bowl, hollering, “Hey, y’all, I know war and starvation and tsunamis are a bummer, but this is just Act One of your infinite existence!” (If he does choose to make an appearance, I hope he follows it up with a big tap dance number and maybe some fireworks.)
I can understand Max’s hesitance to believe. And this is exactly what I admire about him.
You see, given his conviction that when we die, we’re done, he conducts his life in a way that would have Christ/Krishna/Buddah/Allah pretty much high-fiving and chest-bumping him all over the place.
Most people in this world conduct themselves with some measure of decency because: a) They’re scared to death of having to paddle around the everlasting lake of fire in a rowboat with a flotation problem; or B) They’re awaiting a reward of virgins or VIP seating in the bleachers by God’s right hand.
But someone who doesn’t believe in Hell – or Heaven – has little reason to behave in anything but the most heinous of ways. Why not steal milk from a starving baby? Why not screw old people out of their life savings? Why not subjugate the masses so you can buy slingbacks?
My friend Max lives a life based on kindness and respect for others. He behaves ethically simply because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. He has morals because not having them would feel weird.
And I admire the hell out of him, pardon the pun, for this.
I highly encourage you to get to know an Atheist, if you can get to know one like Max.
But until you’re sure, I probably wouldn’t mention the fact that, technically, they could rob you at gunpoint and not feel bad about it.
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Wednesday, June 1st, 2011
I’ve always enjoyed emotional confrontations in movies – Celie’s “The jail you planned for me is the one you’re gonna rot in!” avowal in The Color Purple, or Aurora’s “Give my daughter the shot!” moment in Terms of Endearment. These are the kind of cathartic, high drama scenes that are not only fun to watch, they’re fun to act out in your living room.
Late at night when you’re kinda drunk.
Scenes like this are considerably less fun, however, when you have to act them out in front of others.
In the middle of the day.
My mother has been sick for the past couple of months. Never one to do anything halfway (this is, after all, a woman who routinely ironed bedspreads and window treatments in the middle of the night), she compounded heart failure with a blood infection and pneumonia, turning what should have been a weeklong stay in the hospital into a triumphant, extended run in ICU, held over by popular demand.
The first time I saw her lying there in the hospital bed, so tiny and helpless, I wanted to cry (and not in some attractive, music-swelling, movie kind of way – more of the fetal position, sniveling in the corner variety). But I quickly realized that, as their only son, I needed to pull it together and be the strong one in this situation.
So I set to work trying to figure out how I could make the situation better. I sussed out who the good nurses were. I brought in lunch for my Dad, who was spending 14 hours a day there. I sent a maid to clean their house.
But nothing seemed like an important enough gesture for the woman who – although a little (or maybe a lot) crazy around the edges – had been my most ardent supporter my whole life.
Until the lunchtime incident.
At this point in her recovery, my mother’s daily “outing” consisted of being lifted from the bed into the easy chair next to the bed – a journey of some 36 inches, and one that required two nurses and a lot of praying. Because of the many tubes inserted into her, one of which was a morphine pump, Mother was not only extraordinarily weak but extraordinarily high. So standing up on her own was not even remotely an option, and the burden of her safety fell to the nurses.
Now, I have enormous respect for health care workers. Many of them are absolute angels of mercy, compassionate people with the patience of a hooker working a funeral home. (That’s supposed to be a compliment but I don’t know how to fix it.) And there were two in particular that I worshipped. Watching them was like watching Jesus. (Well, if Jesus wore a kitten blouse and made seriously crappy money for holding people’s lives in their hands.)
Both were, however, at lunch when Mother, exhausted from just sitting up and supremely stoned, decided she wanted to move from the chair back to the bed.
A new nurse came in – a middle-aged redhead who, although nice enough, didn’t seem to be high on the experience scale. (I think I saw her stabbing an orange and mumbling, “I think I’ve got it” before she came in.) She reached down and started to pick Mother up, alone, without even gauging how she was going to handle the five different tubes and cords attached to her.
I jumped up.
“Wait, do you need some help? Those tubes are gonna get –“
“Nah, I can do it. Come on, Elaine, clasp your hands around my neck.”
Mother whimpered, too weak to even lift her arms, much less support her body weight by holding on to this woman.
The nurse did a squat and, as if bench pressing an Olympic barbell, heaved my 98-pound Mother up to a semi-standing position. Mother whelped in pain. Immediately, the cords became tangled, and the nurse, unfazed, leaned Mother against the bed like a sack of potatoes in order to untangle them.
“Are you sure you don’t need some help?!” I hollered, as Mother began to crumple, her frame bending in half like a wilting flower.
“I got her,” she said calmly, more intent on the hoses and cords than on the bony, exhausted patient who was beginning to slip off the edge of the bed.
“She’s falling!” I yelled.
The nurse turned to see Mother sliding down. Grabbing at her in a vain attempt to halt her rapid descent to the tile floor, the nurse – who I’ll henceforth just refer to as Stupid – YANKED OUT one of the ¾” chest tubes that had been surgically inserted into Mother’s lungs.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mother screamed absolute bloody murder. This is a sound, I’d like to add, that I hope you never hear from anyone you love. Nurses came running from all corners of the ICU. It was, essentially, a Code Blue situation. I’ve never seen so many people descend on one room in my life.
Another nurse helped Stupid get Mother onto the bed, and Mother lay there, shrieking in pain, unable to get her breath.
I was enraged. “Get her morphine hooked back up!” (This IV had also been ripped out.)
“Oh, good idea,” Stupid replied.
A doctor flew into the room, quickly examining the hole where the tube had been.
“She needs extra morphine,” I said loudly, “and she needs it NOW.”
Give her two extra doses,” the doctor ordered.
“Can you give her a shot, too, maybe some kind of topical or something, where the tube was yanked out?” I added.
After a few minutes, and as the extra morphine kicked in, Mother began to calm down a bit, only moaning instead of shrieking. I, on the other hand, did not.
I marched out to the nurses’ station and found one of the nurses I loved, who had charged in when the screams began.
“I could kill somebody right about now,” I said to her, sotto voce. “But then, that nurse almost did it for me.”
“I’m so sorry,” the kindly nurse said. “She feels SO bad.”
“She SHOULD,” I replied. “Who tries to move someone like that singlehandedly?”
She patted my hand. I knew she couldn’t say too much, since there was potential liability involved.
“Can you give her a shot?” I said. “She’s really, really hurting.”
We repeated this process a second time, when Mother still complained of blinding pain, and the kindly nurse obliged with a round of pain pills.
And eventually, things calmed down, and Mother (courtesy of enough painkillers to fell a buffalo) went to sleep.
I, however, did not.
I marched out to the nurses’ station again, and found the head nurse, who looked as though she expected me to bitch slap her.
“Hi,” I said in my friendliest I’m-About-To-Rip-You-A-New-One voice. “I don’t want that woman in my mother’s room again. Ever.”
“I understand,” the head nurse said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “But I mean, EV-ER. Please.” I smiled in order to indicate that I wasn’t actually going to deck her or rip her hair out by the roots.
“I promise,” she replied.
“There are two other nurses that I love,” I said, handing her a slip of paper. “These are the only two women that I’d like taking care of her for the rest of the time she’s here.”
“You got it,” the head nurse said with an air of utter assurance. “If there’s anything else you need” – she handed me her card – “you come see me. Okay?”
I walked back in to find Mother sleeping soundly, everything reattached except the chest tube, which would have to be surgically reimplanted.
And I realized that I had just had a “Give my daughter the shot!” moment.
Those of you who read this blog regularly have ascertained that I do not relish confrontation. But I have also learned that, when push comes to shove, I’m not half bad at it. And I was glad that I was there when this happened. And glad that I could, in some tiny way, make a difference for my mother, if only in that moment.
But I gotta say – these scenes are a lot more fun with a bowl of popcorn and a movie screen.
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