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Archive for the ‘Pain’ Category

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“Your Golden Hair, Margarete,” by Anselm Kiefer, 1981 (via http://www.safran-arts.com/42day/art/art4mar/art0308.html)

This is yet another post touched off by a post by Eric Schliesser on the NewApps philosophy blog … He discusses a two-part article in the New York Review of books by Mark Lilla about several films and books on the Holocaust, and considers Lilla’s contention that “Every advance in research that adds a new complication to our understanding of what happened on the Nazi side, or on the victims’, can potentially threaten our moral clarity about why it happened, obscuring the reality and fundamental inexplicability of anti-Semitic eliminationism.” Eric’s insightful discussion got me thinking about the moral implications of trying to represent the Holocaust in literary writing, e.g. fiction, memoir, etc. Following on that, I offer this little anecdote that I have been thinking about for a long time:

When I was spending a year as a student at the University of Hamburg in Germany, the year after I finished college in the US in the mid-1990s, I met an older German man at church who wanted to talk to me about his experiences as a soldier during the Third Reich. It was a little strange explaining to the people at the Mormon church what I was doing in Germany. They met a lot of Mormon American girls my age who came to be au pairs, and they always assumed I could only be another au pair. I finally managed to convince some of them that I was a real student, and that I was studying real subjects like history and theology and Semitic languages.

When this man heard that I was studying history, though my focus was the Greco-Roman era, he assumed I was there to study recent German history. He promised to set aside some time for me so I could interview him about his days as a soldier. I didn’t want to interview him, but I also didn’t want to be impolite. He seemed so determined, and I sensed that he wanted to talk about it, and perhaps at the same time it was hard for him to offer to talk about it, and so rejecting the offer might wound or humiliate him.

On the agreed-upon afternoon, on a dark, cloudy winter day, I went to see him in his cramped, dimly-lit Hamburg apartment where he lived alone. The furnishings were typical older, lower-middle-class hamburgische, from the fifties and sixties, worn dusty rugs and lampshades and curtains. I think he sat in an armchair next to a little side table with a lamp that provided most of the little light there was. I brought a notebook and a pen to pretend to take notes. To my relief, he didn’t seem to expect me to have any questions; he just started to talk.

Since I didn’t take any notes, at least not that I still have, I can’t guarantee how reliable my memory of his story is. But here are a few things I remember, loosely paraphrasing. He started off by saying, “I never liked Jews, when I was younger. I heard a story about a Jewish boy who seduced a girl and got her pregnant, and then wouldn’t marry her. And always after that, I never liked Jews.”

Under the Third Reich, there was a plan for the Jews. From what he understood back then, the plan was just to resettle them, to give them their own place. It even seemed like it could be a good thing for them.

He talked about how the years of the war, when he served as a soldier, were some of the happiest years of his life. “Those were my glory days.” He was young and handsome back then, and there was excitement and camaraderie in the army. But because of the history, because of the terrible things that happened as a result of the war, it was considered wrong to remember those years as happy. This seemed hard for him, to feel forbidden to remember his happiness as happiness, to have to be ashamed of having been happy.

He never knew about any of the camps, he said. He believed the Jews were being given transportation by train to their new resettlements in other territories. Once, he saw one of the trains go by, packed with people who were waving their arms out the sides. He had even thought, back then, perhaps they were waving because they were happy.

Then he said to me, in a near-whisper, “But afterwards, I heard that they were sent to camps. I heard … they even gassed them …” As if this were news that he still had trouble grasping, fifty years later. As if it were up to him to explain the fact of the death camps to me and confess their existence, as if I wouldn’t have read about this over and over again in high school history classes and seen the documentaries and the movies and read the articles and books. As if there still might even be some shred of hope that it hadn’t really happened.

And then perhaps we talked about other things for a while, and probably I thanked him, and left.

It’s not much of a story really, these few little sketchy details of a strange, long-ago conversation, and yet I’ve thought for nearly twenty years since that sometime I should try to write them down. And then I never have until now, because it strikes me as something that might seem to others completely random and trivial – just one little drop of a story in a vast sea of millions of terrible stories. Does it offer any insight into the Holocaust, or the nature of evil, or guilt, or innocence, or willful ignorance, or rationalizations? Is it worth sharing, and how can it be my place to share it? I’m not a Jew, I’m not a German, and the Holocaust happened decades before I was born. I have no direct connection with it. And yet I have this one story where it came to me unasked-for and unwanted and stood before me and tried to explain itself just for those few minutes in those few words of one old man.

Simply by telling a story like this, the story of another person trying to explain himself, a person who may have seen me as an outside judge with a kind of power to absolve him though listening and understanding – am I guilty in this of trying to understand and explain the inexplicable? I still don’t know. I thought perhaps in the act of finally writing it down, I might better understand what it meant to write it down. What having written it down makes clear to me is that I did feel sorry for this man, for his guilt and shame and confusion, for his good will and his past happiness, and his determination to confess and tell me things it pained him to say. Also, that I was simultaneously horrified by some of the things he said. Also, that the story helped me go a little ways toward understanding him and imagining myself in his shoes. Also, that perhaps I might have absolved him if I could have. The project of trying to understand him, and through him to have a tiny window into how the whole horror happened, does not feel immoral to me, it feels like a worthwhile thing to try to do, however flawed and inadequate my telling is. But then perhaps I’m only trying to ease my own guilt, as he was. I don’t know.

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500px-TeapartyA philosophy professor acquaintance of mine recently wrote an interesting blog post defending the Tea Party’s rationality, and then Salon.com came out with an article, Tea Party Radicalism is Misunderstood, echoing some of those points and differing on others. I appreciated the attempts at de-simplifying people’s views of the Tea Party’s tactics, and I have been doing a lot of thinking the past few days about political beliefs and rationality (being furloughed from my job as a federal employee, I have had plenty of time think).

After my initial shock and anger at being furloughed, during which I was firing off endless tweets to Rep. Boehner and Sen. Ted Cruz about how the Republican party was a bunch of terrorists, I banned myself from social media for a few days to give myself a chance to mourn quietly and calm down and create some rules for myself about how to deal mentally and emotionally and socially with all of this. My situation is a little complicated by the fact that I have a very large extended family and network of old friends who are mostly very politically conservative, and many think the shutdown and proposed default on the national debt are great ideas, and that the Republicans in Congress should keep on going with forward with this strategy until Obamacare is defunded, and even then maybe they still should keep it going.

The shutdown is creating looming financial hardships for me and many other federal workers I know – yes, a bill was passed to give us back pay, but there is no knowing how long many of us will have to live on our savings or borrowed money. The city of DC, where I live, is running out of its cash reserves, and it’s anyone’s guess how long it can keep up basic services. But I think what has been hardest and most frightening for me has been having to emerge from the little apolitical literary bubble in which I’ve been living happily for the past few years, and having to open my eyes to the ugly thing that political discourse has become.

For the past few years I have pretty much ignored politics and the news (except for news about books and publishing) and have just been focused on taking care of my daughter, writing historical novels, and making it through the exhausting nine-to-six-thirty grind. But now it’s hard to ignore. What I observe is that productive communication about politics seems nearly impossible. People simply do not want to engage with those who don’t share their own beliefs. Conservatives will watch Fox News, and liberals will read the New York Times and the Washington Post, and never the twain shall meet. They surround themselves with voices that reinforce what they already believe. But if we aren’t willing to let our beliefs be challenged, how can we ever learn if we’re wrong about something?

In fact, the phenomenon of being stuck in the proverbial echo chamber is understandable, because those brave souls who do attempt to engage with opposing opinions get slammed with incredible vulgarity, hyperbolic insults, mockery, dismissiveness, and unwillingness to listen. It doesn’t take long to get a sense that any attempt at a true exchange of ideas under those conditions is futile. And these words may not be sticks and stones, but they can deeply hurt people who are already going out of their comfort zone in the attempt to talk to people on the other side. So I can hardly blame people for wanting to retreat to the soothing haven of forums where the views they hear are in line with their own. My enraged tweets accusing elected lawmakers of terrorism were sadly typical.

How can real conversation ever take place if we aren’t willing to be polite and respectful to each other?

“But what if the other side doesn’t deserve respect? What if they’re just a bunch of self-serving jerks? What if they’re seriously just lunatics?” On the self-serving jerks question, well, if we only respect people who serve our interests, are we any less self-serving or jerky? Productive discourse is most likely to take place if we begin from a faith that other human beings have intrinsic worth and embrace a default stance of civility toward those we enter into dialogue with.

And on the lunatics question – finally getting to the main point of this post – I think true instances of mass mental illness are fairly rare, at least if we’re talking about delusional psychosis. What I do see a lot of that can look quite a bit like lunacy is listening in bad faith and without charity. The pattern is all too familiar: a politician says something that sounds horrible or ridiculous or self-damning when taken out of context. Or perhaps a public figure is just plain having a bad day, or is exhausted, or genuinely misspeaks, choosing the wrong words or mistaking the facts in the heat of the moment. The statement is then gleefully taken up and spun by journalists and social media. It shouldn’t take too much brain power to see through these seemingly outrageous statements, and yet gaffe-spinning has become a veritable industry, and a form of willful laziness prevails among consumers of journalism and social media so that they simply aren’t willing to exercise even the small amount of brain power it would take to approach such reported statements with the skepticism they deserve.

As for charity, I’m not referring to the Christian concept of brotherly love (though that would not be out of place here), but rather the philosophical or rhetorical principle that your own argument will be more valid and convincing if you have given your opponent’s arguments every benefit of the doubt and considered it with the maximum amount of fairness and generosity. That kind of charity is hard, dog-hard, not nearly as easy as seeing through gaffes. It’s more of an ideal to strive for than something anyone ever one hundred percent masters. But the more all parties involved strive toward that ideal, the more productive arguments can be, not to mention the more emotionally endurable.

So, the conservatives, and the Tea Party — are the people who adhere to their principles and strategies irrational? I would say not in the sense of being “crazy” en masse, though I do see some of this listening in bad faith and without charity in some of them, as I also see it in some people on the left. On the other hand, political beliefs of any stripe often resemble religious beliefs in that they function more like marriage commitments than logical thought processes. People are tied to their political identities, as they are to their romantic partners and to their religious roots, through complex webs of time, emotions, values, memories, experiences, educational histories, family and friends, community roles, hopes, and fears. As such, people can rarely ever be simply talked out of their politics, though they are capable of switching sides, just as they may leave romantic relationships and religions. When they do, it can be a long, slow, painful process.

I don’t see the persistence of political beliefs, even in the face of seemingly contradictory evidence, as irrational or contrary to reason, so much as it may be non-rational. That is, it may not have much at all to do with one’s ability to reason (or one’s intelligence or educational level for that matter), and may have a lot more to do with the “givens” we start out with and have to reason from. (For example, “given” that John enjoys eating pineapples, therefore, it would be rational for John to seek to eat pineapples. His original liking for pineapples is neither rational nor irrational.) On the other hand, arguments based in fact and reasoning can play a role in changing people’s commitments, even if they will not always play a starring role alongside attempts to influence people’s desires in non-rational ways. (For example, if someone tells John that his pineapple has been genetically modified, he will have to consider whether his life-long liking for pineapples outweighs his worries about genetically modified food. But then there is that seductive ad for pineapples, which makes them seem so sweet and ripe and luscious! Plus, the pineapples are on sale. His children love pineapples too — he must think of the children! John has a very tough call to make …)

To be productive and worthwhile, political discourse has to understand and acknowledge these complexities and the non-rational elements that hold people to their political commitments. It’s all too easy to lose sight of them and get frustrated because “people won’t see reason” or “won’t acknowledge the facts,” and then you want to start accusing people of being crazy. As for the Tea Party, in holding firm to their deeply held beliefs, they are being, if not exactly rational, very quintessentially and typically human. I don’t agree with their beliefs or their strategy, but I respect their humanity, and I believe that they have their reasons for believing as they do, even if those reasons aren’t always clear to me, or even to them. (Is my own reasoning about my life choices always clear to me?)

So here are the principles I’ve laid out for myself for participating in conversations about politics:

  1. Be open-minded and willing to consider others’ views.
  2. Always remember it might turn out to be me who’s wrong – time makes fools of us all.
  3. Be civil, respectful, polite, and kind to person I am talking with.
  4. Listen in good faith and give people the benefit of the doubt.
  5. Be charitable in arguing – give my opponent’s arguments the strongest possible construction.
  6. Be patient with people and remember that changing deeply held beliefs can be very difficult.

What are your principles for talking politics?

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A Congress of my past selves convenes
Hotly debating how to appropriate
The dull foul-smelling coins
That make more jingling sound than they can buy —
An outmoded currency, this rage.
They argue from all the times I’ve switched selves
That beliefs aren’t immutable. They stand me before a murder board
As if I were the head of some agency
Wanting me to testify, or keep silent and play it safe,
Because we all only speak in gaffes,
Duly spun and misinterpreted.
We can’t seem to resolve the impasse
And so I sit watching them move across the screen.
My agency has been shut down.
The hours filibuster one another,
True hijackers of democracy,
Tolling pitiless laws no vote can delay.

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Concussion mechancis

Concussion Mechanics, by Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been an eventful spring and summer in some ways, so I thought I’d do another catch-up post.

May: Concussion

In mid-May I had an odd experience. I was coming home from a dinner with friends at restaurant downtown around 11:00 at night, and took the American University shuttle bus from the Tenleytown metro station, which lets off near my apartment building so that I only have a 5-10 minute walk from the campus. The last thing I remember was getting off the bus, before waking up with everything dark, hearing voices over me:

“Was she assaulted?”

[muffled response]

“Okay,” says a voice near my head, “we’re just going to stitch you up. This might sting a bit.” The cold bite of a needle in my forehead, not painful, but cold. I open my eyes. The needle was just an anesthetic; now the actual stitching happens. It feels like something tugging at the skin on one side of my forehead.

“Where am I?” I ask, as the tugging stops and I hear the snip of scissors cutting the thread.

“You’re at George Washington University Hospital.”

“How did I get here?”

“An ambulance brought you.”

I mull over this and realize yes, I am lying in what appears to be a hospital bed, in a hospital gown. There are IV lines in my wrists. I put a hand to my head and feel that my hair is oddly matted and crunchy. It turns out I am covered with blood; my hair is saturated with it. The hospital bedlinens are also covered with it.

“What happened?” I ask. In retrospect I’m not sure why I was so calm, but nothing really bothered me too much about the situation at the time.

“We were hoping you could tell us that. You were found in the street on Nebraska Avenue. You got a pretty big bump on your head.”

It’s about two in the morning, I learn, and nobody knows exactly what happened to me. A night nurse tells me she saw my police report, which says that some witnesses found me on the ground and saw me throw up. I have a concussion and severe bruising on my knees and on the back of my left lower leg. Apparently when the ambulance came I was talking and moving around, but I couldn’t remember anything about myself to tell the ambulance workers other than my name and where I worked. I have no memory of any of this.

I still had all my clothes on and nothing had been stolen, so it appears the answer to that first question was no, I hadn’t been assaulted. Later I would formulate the theory that I’d been run over by a bicyclist or a moped, because of the bruises on the back of my left calf. They were too low to be from a car, but something had definitely run over me. I think a bike or something similar must have been coming up from behind as I got off the bus, and didn’t see me until it was too late. I still don’t know if it was the person who hit me who called the ambulance, or if it was a hit and run. I still don’t really know much at all about what happened.

They kept me in the hospital for two days. Whenever I stood up I was dizzy, and my bruises hurt a lot. I managed to rinse some of the blood out of my hair, but couldn’t really shower, and felt pretty gross. A handful of friends came to visit. When I was finally allowed to leave, I had to call someone to drive me home. The nurse gave me a bag with all my things in it. I tried to put my clothes on that I’d been wearing the night of the accident, but they’d all been cut up by the emergency room staff. They were soaked with blood and vomit and smelled horrible, so I threw them in the trash. A guy I’d gone on a couple of dates with, who’d come to visit me in the hospital and had brought me flowers and read to me for an hour, also bought me underpants from the hospital gift store – they were Hanes and they were huge granny undies that came up to my belly button. He was very embarrassed, but I appreciated having underwear. We are still dating.

My friend Tanya picked me up from the hospital and brought me some of her old clothes to wear, and drove me home (did I mention Tanya is a wonderful person? Check out her blog, and you’ll see what I mean.)

So that was kind of an adventure. In all I missed three days of work, and was dizzy for a week or two. Apart from the hospital bills, that was the worst of it. It could have been worse, and I feel pretty lucky, considering.

June: Novel #3

In June I finished the first draft of my third novel. It’s called What They Sought in the Sea, and is about a girl who washes up bruised and naked on the shore of a fishing village in Northern France in the 1850s. A local family takes in her, and they and their neighbors find their lives disrupted as they try to solve the mystery of the girl’s origins.

I’ve been revising the book since June and have gotten some good feedback from beta readers. I’ll be querying (more) agents on it soon.

July: Foray into Self-Publishing

A Lost ArgumentIn July I started to work on self-publishing my second novel, A Lost Argument, since despite a number of promising leads in the end I’d been unable to find an agent for it and didn’t have much hope for finding a publisher without an agent. In researching self-publishing, I gradually started to realize that with all the work that went into it, I could almost as easily set up my own press for publishing other people’s books.

The idea was kind of appealing to me, because as I’d tried to find a publisher for my book, I’d had some discussions with other former-Mormon writers who wrote about Mormonism. There are a lot of very talented people out there writing about their experiences in and out of the Church, but it’s hard to find a publisher because Mormons, let alone ex/post/former/alumni Mormons, are something of a niche audience. If you’re writing faith-affirming stuff, there’s always the chance of getting picked up by one of the handful of Mormon publishers: Deseret, Covenant, or even brave little Zarahemla Books (go them!) And every now and then you get the rare breakout book that catches the attention of mainstream publishers, like Elna Baker’s  New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, or Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints. But for the most part, ex/post/former/alumni Mormon writers are on their own. If I started my own press, though (I thought), I could maybe do my own little part towards finally giving that niche audience a home for those writers’ books.

And so I kept on researching …

August: Publication (and Novel #4)

And in August I registered my own publishing imprint, Strange Violin Editions, with the United States ISBN agency (Bowker) and bought a ten-pack of ISBN numbers. I bought the website domain name, and put in a registration with the Library of Congress so that in the future I’d be able to get cataloging-in-publication data for the books I published. And I published my novel as an e-book through Smashwords.com under the Strange Violin Editions imprint. Whoo-hoo! Next came the Kindle Edition on Amazon. Then I dove headfirst into the arcane world of print book design and formatting and immersed myself in the geeky details of typography, and finally uploaded the files for a paperback version on Amazon.

I also started a new novel, which will be my fourth. I haven’t picked a title yet, but it’s going to be a comic novel (a la Christopher Buckley, hopefully) about a high-ranking Mormon Church leader gone bad who’s secretly working to undermine the Church. When he takes a ditzy young artist for a mistress, the two get caught up in international intrigue and espionage. It’s going to be seriously fun to write, I think.

September: Introducing Strange Violin Editions!

That paperback version is finally available for sale. And I put together the Strange Violin Editions website. I’ll be sending around a formal call for submissions at some point, but the online submissions manager is already set up and ready to go, which means folks can start submitting now. And last week, I sent out a book contract to my very first author, Steven L. Peck (well, my first author other than me, that is!) It’s all coming together. Pretty exciting!

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Twisted Tree

After my marriage ended about a year ago, I had no real intention of dating, at least not through my own efforts. As it happened, I ended up doing a surprising amount of dating that just sort of happened without my feeling like I’d gone much out of my way to cause it. In this willy-nilly fashion, I ended up getting into a five-month-long relationship, which very recently ended – again, without my meaning it to. The unexpected breakup, as these things do, has me trying to make sense of why I got myself into this in the first place and where I go from here. And so in this post, I wanted to take some time to remind myself what my goals are with relationships and what it’s all about for me.

Relationships (not just romantic ones, but all kinds of relationships between people), like a lot of things, can be said to have a form and a content. The form is the shape it takes: how often you see each other, what kinds of things you do when you meet, the words you use to describe it and each other – “marriage,” “dating,” “boyfriend,” or “friend,” or “the person I’m seeing.” And then there’s the content – who you both are as individuals, what you bring out in each other, the shape your interactions take, the emotions they provoke.

When I was younger, I think I tended to focus more on the form of romantic relationship I wanted than the content. I wanted a fling, or a relationship, or a boyfriend, or a fiance, or a marriage, and it didn’t matter as much who exactly filled the role as long as the role was filled by some acceptable candidate. I think I wasn’t alone in this. I would occasionally go on dating sites or look at personal ads, and they were set up a lot like shopping sites and regular ads. There were so many people to sort through that you almost had to start off with a checklist. You set your criteria for a person in a certain age range, having x religious beliefs and y political beliefs and z non-negotiable interests or aversions. Having decided on your preferred format of personal qualities and the form of relationships you were aiming for (long-term, fling, etc.), you then shopped around for a person who fit into it. It was a lot like having a certain pair of shoes in mind – strappy white sandals with no more than a 2.5-inch heel for no more than $80 – and looking until you found just what you wanted.

That is one way of going about things. And there’s a certain lovely idealism in searching for the grand love affair, the one that includes flowers, nights of passion, stimulating conversation, shared aesthetics and values, and progresses to a tasteful, well-attended wedding and eventually growing happily old together, watching your grandchildren play and sipping lemonade out on the front porch. But in the end, that, too, is just another checklist.

Then there are those who talk of “settling.” Which seems to mean accepting that you might just not get everything on the list checked off, heaving a sigh, and going ahead with it anyway, but never really putting aside your resentment or sense of inadequacy about those boxes on the list that didn’t get a checkmark.

At some point, though, I’d had my fill of looking for the perfect form, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I had experienced all the main forms, and in the end, a form was just something empty, like a madeleine pan without any madeleines in it, or a jello mold without any jello. In the end, it was the organic shape the relationship took as it grew that made me and the other person either happy or unhappy. And so the goal stopped being a relationship of this or that kind, but authenticity in my interactions with the people around me and generally doing what made me and others happy (with all the caveats of ethics and social and moral responsibility). I decided I would try to just take the people I encountered for what they were and let that content dictate the form of my relationship to them. If I could love someone, I would love them, if I could like them, I would like them. If I enjoyed spending time with someone, I would try to spend more time with them, and so on. I’d worry less about what it was called and what it looked like to other people than about what it did for us.

So with the passing of this last relationship, I wonder what I’m mourning for. Am I more sad to lose the person, or am I just sad not to have a boyfriend anymore? I think even with my healthier philosophy of authenticity, it’s still easy to get caught up in the forms. It was nice being able to say I had a boyfriend, to put “in a relationship” on my Facebook page, to use plural pronouns like “we” and “us.” It was nice having an automatic date to bring to things like weddings and concerts. I will miss all of that.

But I have to remind myself that while the form might have fallen out of shape, the content is still there. We’re still the same people we were before, even if we’re no longer a “we.” The experiences and memories don’t lose their value just because they’re now of things I did with an ex instead of things I did with a boyfriend. And while nothing that comes to me in the future will ever take just the same shape that grew up with this past relationship, there’s an infinity of lovely, twisting and branching new structures that can form as I go on loving whomever I can love and liking whomever I can like, and spending time with people I enjoy being with, as much and as long as I can – or being alone when I need to be.

The pain of losing someone you care about can’t really be reasoned or blogged away, but still, I think it helps to remind myself of all this.

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Tucson Sunset

Tucson Sunset, by Saghuaro Pictures, via Wikimedia Commons

Amandine and I are in Tucson on vacation again. We left on Tuesday and it was kind of an eventful day. Shortly before getting in the car to head for the airport, I got an e-mail from a literary agent I’d queried about the new novel, requesting the full manscript. That was exciting, because I’ve only sent a handful of queries out. And since I’m still working on making the book better, mainly the only reason I was querying so early was to get a jumpstart on refining my query letter, and also to keep me motivated through the editing process. Knowing you might get a partial or full manuscript request at any moment makes it pretty urgent to get the book in good shape quickly.

So, the agent still might not like my full manuscript, but at least this says positive things about my query letter and the overarching concept of the book. And meanwhile, I’ll keep looking for ways to improve it.

Not long after that bit of excitement, I fell down some stairs and sprained my ankle pretty badly.  I howled in pain at the top of my lungs. My two-and-a-half-year-old Amandine was the only one else home, and she was playing up stairs. She came down and said, “Mommy … you … okaaaay?”

Regaining some of my composure, I said, “Yes, sweetie, Mommy’s okay, she just got an ouchie on her foot.” Amandine gave me a big consoling hug. It was very cute.

We rode to the airport and I was walking on the injured foot just fine, but during the 5 1/2 hour flight to Phoenix, my ankle started to swell up and ache and throb. I got some ice to put on it, but by the time the flight got in, I couldn’t put any weight on it at all. The airplane staff put me into a wheelchair and with Amandine sitting on my lap I got wheeled to the baggage claim.

We were supposed to stay overnight with my sister in Phoenix before going on to Tucson in the morning. But through a weird coincidence, my sister had also sprained her right ankle, about half an hour before I sprained mine. It was like we were both on the same telepathic sisterly-klutziness wavelength. So, since neither of us could drive or walk, my mom had to drive up from Tucson to pick Amandine and me up at the airport.

Back at my sister’s house in Phoenix, we spent the next day with our injuries iced and elevated, with my poor, sweet, long-suffering mom chasing all the kids around. Then we left for Tucson.

Yesterday the big event was getting Amandine’s hair cut at the mall. We opted for the Christopher Robin style, and she is now even more unbearably cute than before (she was starting to bear a startling resemblance to Cousin Itt from the Addams Family).

Before:

Cousin Itt

Before: Note similarity to Cousin Itt

After:

Christopher Robin

After: A Christopher Robin coiffure

That is about as exciting as life gets around here, which is probably a good thing.

Before I close, a quick shout-out to a writer friend of mine who just had a great story published in Word Riot. There’s even a podcast! Give it a listen, it’s good stuff.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Image from 1978 film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which introduced the concept of pod people. Via CraveOnline.com

This week, retired baseball player Mark McGwire finally confessed to steroid use, and it got me thinking about the relationship between social stigmas and lying.

Although I normally have no interest in or awareness of anything baseball-related, I feel a personal connection to this story, because I happened to be there in the same room with McGwire during the 2005 congressional hearing on steroids in baseball. If you follow baseball, you’ll probably remember it—the House Government Reform committee called in McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmiero, Curt Schilling, and Jose Canseco and grilled them for hours about their steroid use in front of the TV cameras.  I was working on Rep. Waxman’s staff in a  junior-level position at the time, mainly doing editing and proofreading. Whenever there was a really important hearing like that, it was considered one of the perks of the job for the junior staffers to be able to come in through the back door of the hearing room, sit on the steps to the dais, and watch the proceedings. So I came out and watched the baseball hearing for a while.

I remember feeling really, really sorry for McGwire. I couldn’t help thinking those must have been some of the most stressful moments of his life. Imagine being called out on something you’re not proud of, something that puts your whole career and all your accomplishments in doubt, that’s illegal on top of it and that you could go to jail for admitting you did—in front of your family, your friends, and the entire world. Imagine congressmen saying to you, “Oh, and by the way, the parents whose kids killed themselves because the kids were imitating you and using steroids are sitting right behind you.” I kept thinking he was about to burst into tears. It was like seeing someone having their fingernails torn out in front of you.

The stigma attached to steroid use almost necessitated that he lie (if only by omission). Of course, he could have just admitted it and faced the consequences, but his lawyers had advised him against it, and as he says in the interview,

Here I was in a situation where I had two scenarios: Possible prosecution or possible grand-jury testimonies. Well you know what happens when there’s a possible prosecution? You bring in your whole family, you bring in your whole friends, ex-teammates, coaches, anybody around you. How the heck am I going to bring those people in for some stupid act that I did? So you know what I did? We agreed to not talk about the past. And it was not enjoyable to do that, Bob. Let me tell you right now, sitting up there and listening to the Hooten family behind me and the other families behind me that lost their loved ones, and every time I kept on saying, ‘I’m not talking about the past,’ I hear these moans. It was killing me. It was absolutely killing my heart. But I had to do what I had to do to protect myself, to protect my family and to protect my friends. Anybody who was in my shoes that had those scenarios set out in front of them would have done the same exact thing.

Which pretty much confirms my impressions of what he must have felt that day. So he had a choice between hurting people by lying or hurting people by telling the truth. The kind of moral dilemma no one ever wants to have to face.

An online comment someone made on an essay I wrote got me thinking further about stigmas and lies. My essay was a humor piece on dating, and there was a part where I made fun of people who love being single, implying they’re like the pod people in that film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The commenter wrote he was concerned by the way I was stigmatizing the happily single people. He drew a comparison between needing sleep and needing to be in a relationship:

Most people, in order to be well-adjusted and happy, need an amount of nightly sleep that’s around 8 hours, give or take. But there’s the rare person who only needs around 5 hours of sleep. With those lucky few, it’s natural to ask “Are you SURE you’re okay on so little sleep, or are you forced to due to circumstances, and maybe there’s some denial on your part?”

If they were to say “Do I SEEM like I’m in denial?” and indeed they appeared as well-adjusted and happy as any person, you could respond in one of two ways:

a) Tell them “Wow – so you just need 5 hours sleep and you’re good? That’s not like most of us. Good for you!”

b) Say “What planet are YOU from? Go back to pretending you didn’t grow out of a pod.”

You see, the latter response assumes a person is worthy of ridicule by virtue of their being in the minority. And that’s the tone you seem to have adopted towards those who are happily-single. This derision towards voluntary singles, besides not being a valid basis on which to judge someone, can be harmful in that many singles feel pressured to enter into a relationship that’s not right for them, simply to avoid being stigmatized.

I thought this was a good point, and in my response I agreed with him. But the comment brought back some traumatic memories from my single years. A big part of what I hated about being single and dating was that you never could tell who was a “pod person” in the sense that they didn’t feel the need for a relationship. They didn’t look that different from the sorts of guys I wanted to be dating (the relationship-minded ones), although if you looked closely enough there were warning signs.

Social stigmas played a role in the concealment. As the pod-person straight guy, you couldn’t admit what you were without sending the non-pod women running off screaming. (And it seemed there were not as many pod women as pod guys.) But as the non-pod, relationship-minded girl, you couldn’t be too straightforward about your intentions either for fear of being stigmatized as marriage-obsessed. So it generally took a while to figure out who was what, leaving plenty of leeway to get your heart squashed in the meantime.

Trying to put myself in the pod guy’s shoes and understand where he was coming from, I could see he had a moral dilemma, if not quite as poignant as Mark McGwire’s. As I wrote in my response:

If you’re, say, a straight guy who doesn’t want an exclusive relationship with any one woman, and you’re honest and upfront about this, you might not get a lot of takers. So your choices are (a) be honest and sexually unsuccessful or (b) be dishonest and end up hurting people’s feelings. Neither of which is really appealing, or at least it wouldn’t appeal to me.

But maybe if there weren’t so much stigma attached to the genuine desire for non-exclusivity, the person wouldn’t have that sucky dilemma. I don’t know.

So I was wondering—how much are social stigmas to blame for hurtful deceptions between people? Whether it’s baseball or dating or what have you—would people be more honest if you didn’t have the stigmas? When are the stigmas rational? Would it be better to rid ourselves of them if it fostered more honesty?

Or does the stigma come from the deception itself? I don’t think I would have minded the existence of the pod guys so much if they had been easier to avoid. And at least part of what has made steroid use in sports so shameful is the idea that athletes use them while pretending not to, presenting themselves as if their achievements were wholly the result of their hard work and natural gifts. So we can turn the earlier question around: Would fostering more honesty help us get rid of the stigmas? I don’t know. Jews in the Third Reich wore yellow stars to identify themselves, and this didn’t exactly help against being stigmatized.

Fun facts: The original plural of “stigma” is not “stigmas,” but “stigmata.” The word comes from classical Greek, where it means “the mark of a pointed instrument, a tattoo-mark, brand,” according to Liddell & Scott. And if you didn’t already know, stigmata is also used to refer to the wounds of Jesus on the cross—St. Francis of Assisi is said to have received them on his own hands and feet after having a vision. Which is interesting, given the sorts of wounding moral dilemmas social stigmas can give rise to.

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