my sordid past


Jesse Helms, the former Senator from North Carolina, passed away yesterday at the age of 86. Many in the conservative community are drawing attention to the fact that this “patriot” died on the Fourth of July. Perhaps they mistakenly believe that by focusing on the date of his death, we will overlook the contents of his life.

The only kind thing I can say about Helms, is that at least he never hid his beliefs. You knew exactly what you were getting with him, be it racist, xenophobic or homophobic. He knew there were pockets of America that hated him, and he reveled in that knowledge. “If you want to call me a bigot, fine,” he said.

Of course I want to call him a bigot. This man spent his early career opposing the Civil Rights Movement and once responded to a Duke University vigil for Martin Luther King, Jr. after his assassination by stating, “They should ask their parents if it would be all right for their son or daughter to marry a Negro.”

As time went on, and he lost his battle to keep the races separate and entirely unequal, he found a new group of scapegoats. “Homosexuals,” he stated in a 1995 radio broadcast, “are weak, morally sick wretches.”

And for much of the last decade or so of his career, Helms focused his vitriol on gays. (Or should I say, “on homosexuals”? After all, Helms refused to refer to homosexuals as gays, stating, “I despise the use of the once beautiful word ‘gay.’ They are not gay; they are repulsive.”) Though he was particularly riled up on the topic of AIDS funding (and once suggested a quarantine was necessary for all HIV positive individuals), he was also quick to anger whenever an openly gay individual was nominated for a position that required Congressional approval or at any suggestion that gay Americans deserved equal rights and protection under the law. In response to the U.S. Postal Service’s plan to commemorate the Stonewall rebellion with a special postmark, Helm’s stood on the Senate floor and said, “The homosexuals are in a battle against American values. Their ultimate aim is to have the American people accept the proposition that their perverted lifestyle is as worthy of protection as race, creed and religion. I do not buy that. I say to them, bosh and nausea, and a pox on whomever in the Postal Service made this completely misguided decision.”

I was a junior at the University of North Carolina (or “The University of Negroes and Communists” as Helms coined my beloved alma mater) when he decided not seek another term in Congress. I won’t deny the fact that we celebrated, though I’m not sure replacing him with Liddy Dole was much of an improvement.

I am not rejoicing today, because I never rejoice in the death of any individual, no matter how little I respect them or how much I hate them. But I hope that with his death, there is a symbolic death as well.

Jesse Helms is not only a three-decade veteran of Congress who spent his career championing the causes of ignorance and intolerance. He is also a hero to small but vocal group of conservative Christians — the type who like to couch obviously racist statements with phrases like, “I’m not a racist, but…” I know these people. I used to live among them. My family and friends worshiped Mr. Helms, and held him up as a shining example.

I hope that his death may be another another milestone in the fight to end an era of hate and intolerance. And I hope that the leaders who rise up to replace this dying breed of politician, regardless of party, will remember that even their political foes are human beings who deserve equal rights and protections under the law.

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I was nine when I started babysitting. His name was John, and he was roughly a year old. He lived in the apartment complex next to the duplex where I lived with my mother and sister. Both of his parents were in the military (as were most people in the community where we lived, right outside a major base) and they needed someone for an evening or two per week. My mom offered to it, but within no time, it was clear that I was the one doing the actual babysitting. While my mom was busy doing…whatever it was she was doing, I pushed him in the swing out back, changed his diaper and gave him his bottle. Soon he preferred me, and eventually his parents started referring to me as the babysitter. A couple of times, I even watched him without supervision because my mom was unavailable. In retrospect, I am HORRIFIED by this. What sort of parent leaves their infant in the sole care of a nine year old?

But at the time, it seemed normal. And soon, it was not just little John. By the time I was in seventh grade (and living on the other side of the country) I was the neighborhood babysitter. I was thirteen when the family across the street welcomed their first baby. They were new in town, having arrived when she was eight months pregnant. My mom mentioned that I loved babies and would be happy to help out if they needed it. I don’t think she anticipated them leaving me alone with their two week old. And I know she didn’t expect me to wind up as their part-time nanny, babysitting three afternoons a week for two years, until Luke’s mom quit her job to be a stay at home mother to Luke and his new little sister.

So for nearly two decades, I’ve been caring for other people’s children. In a few cases, as a nanny, that’s meant a deep, steady relationship with a family. But most of the time, it’s meant an occasionally evening here and a long Saturday afternoon there.

Since moving to Atlanta a year ago, I’ve cut back dramatically on the amount of babysitting I do. I used to routinely spend an extra 10-20 hours a week babysitting on top of my 50-hour work week as a nanny. But since I moved here, my priorities have shifted. I have a family now and a home that I love. I no longer need to fill the every waking moment. I LIKE sitting at home on the couch with JP and the beasts. And, because I have someone to share the bills and expenses that come with living life, I no longer need the extra income. Lately, it seems that babysitting is more hassle than it’s worth. Even though I get paid top dollar, it’s still not usually enough to tempt me. And the few times lately I’ve decided it was worth it, I wound up disappointed. Because the problem with agreeing to babysit, is that there is no contract and no penalty for a late cancellation. And in the last three months, I’ve accepted two babysitting jobs. Both times, I took time out of my schedule to go to their house and sit with them for awhile so they could get to know me. I gave them references and played with the baby for awhile so they could get to know me a little before leaving me along with their child. And both times, the parents canceled on me within six hours of the time I was scheduled to arrive. Luckily, I wasn’t counting on the money. But it’s a hassle to jump through the hoops of being hired without seeing a return on my investment. I hate turning down other invitations, only to have my plans changed at the last minute. And although I don’t NEED the money, it’s irritating to anticipate an extra $100 that never materializes. (In this case, I had planned to use it for a Valentine’s Day surprise. I suppose it’s a good thing that JP isn’t materialistic and genuinely believes it’s the thought that counts.)

So, I’m done. It’s time to hand over the title of “Everyone’s Favorite Babysitter”. I thought I would be sad — after all, babysitting has been a major part of my life for as long as I can remember. But instead it feels like a weight is lifted. As much as I love children, I would rather interact with them on my own terms and within the constraints of my own schedule. If I find that I really miss it, maybe I’ll look into some volunteer opportunities. But in the meantime…I feel like I should throw a retirement party!

Growing up, my mother approached Christmas in much the same manner as Halloween. If you’re scratching your head and wondering why a devout Christian would despise the day which most of the world celebrates the birth of her savior, I’ll solve the puzzle for you.

1. According to my mother, it is ridiculous to celebrate the birth of Jesus on a random day that almost certainly is not his birthday. Almost all religious historians will tell you that Jesus was most certainly not born in winter. More likely he was born in late September. But of course, there is no way of knowing exactly when he was born. Furthermore, ancient Christians tried to appease new converts by incorporating their pagan traditions regarding Winter Solstice into their new religion: hence the adoption of symbols of winter solstice such as decorating evergreen trees and hanging holly and mistletoe. The last thing my mother ever wanted to support was tolerance or acceptance of anyone whose beliefs differed from her one bit, so this last bit seemed particularly abhorrent. IF — and that’s a big if — she was going to allow us to celebrate the holiday, there would be ABSOLUTELY no tree or other “pagan decorations”.

2. Any redeeming value the holiday might have once had, it was obliterated long ago by the raging consumerism and secularization of the season. As much as she hated the holiday, she hated even more to see others “abusing” it by using it as an excuse to overspend. And do yourself a favor — don’t ever get her started on store windows or Christmas cards that displayed Santa and snowmen rather than nativity scenes. She claimed that these icons were distractions that took away attention from the true meaning of the holiday. And, as she was very fond of pointing out, Santa is an anagram of Satan. (Later, when I was older, I tried to explain that this meant exactly nothing since the icon’s name is not Santa, and that Santa simply means Saint, and it is a title given to hundreds of people. My argument went over as well as you are imagining.)

So, in our house, Christmas was treated much like Halloween. Not only did we not celebrate, but my mother used the season as an opportunity to impose her brand of religion on all those we encountered. If you think people dislike being told they should not celebrate Halloween, try to imagine how they react to being told they should not celebrate Christmas.

All of my extended family celebrated Christmas with gusto. My cousins all looked forward to a month of decorating, singing, and shopping culminating in an orgy of presents. Obviously, as a child, I envied the gifts. As I got older, I envied the traditions. I wanted to make a big family breakfast each year, which I would eat in my new Christmas pajamas. I wanted to exchange gifts and wear bows on my head. I wanted to decorate a tree with ornaments that told a story of Christmases past.

As Christmas approaches, JP and I have the opportunity to create our own holiday traditions. (As a side note, I’ve always thought it was ironic that I had to become an atheist before I was able to celebrate Christmas.) We’re excited about decorating our first tree and hosting our first holiday party. But as you may have gathered, JP and I are not religious, so a lot of the religious traditions that seem inherent in the holiday — going to church, etc — don’t appeal. But one Christian tradition I’ve always loved is the advent calendar. It seems like a wonderful way to prolong the joy of the season, increasing the anticipation day by day.

So this year I decided to make a calendar of my own. I followed the wonderful instructions found here and made a calendar of tiny envelopes. I used a variety of beautiful scrapbook paper, which is great because I had tons left over for my scrapbook. I love the mini clothespins — they are so adorable. And I filled each envelope with instructions for a Christmas activity. Some are big — like a road trip to see the Lake Lanier Nights of Magic. Others are small — like making a Christmas list or writing out ten things you are thankful for. But each is something special we can do together. And thirty days of activities that bring us closer together…that’s a tradition I’m proud to start for my new family.

Outside, the leaves were flaming and air held the first chill of the season. Meanwhile, I sat — surrounded by boxes — in my Chapel Hill townhouse, frantically working on a paper for my Environmental Ethics class and an article about open adoption for my Feature Writing class. I had two days of classes left before Thanksgiving break, and it seemed all my professors were trying to cram in one more paper or exam before wrapping things up. It was my final semester of college, and senioritis had hit hard. Those classes were two of the best I’d taken in my college career, but still, I couldn’t focus. Even though I still had two weeks of classes and a week of finals standing between me and my big move, I felt like my life already existed in Atlanta, with me on the outside looking in. I had a home and a roommate lined up, and most of my belongings were already moved in. My employers were emailing me weekly with updates from the surrogate, and I’d been to Atlanta a few weeks earlier for Baby H’s baby shower. Most importantly, I was rapidly falling in love with someone I had never even met in person. Three weeks earlier, a random message via MySpace had started an avalanche of emotions.

I wasn’t looking for a relationship. In fact, the timing couldn’t have been worse. I was overwhelmed with schoolwork and the minutia of moving. I wanted to get settled in Atlanta, before meeting someone. I didn’t have the time or energy for a relationship. But life surprises us sometimes. And I’m so glad that I let go of control (for once in my life) and let life take me where it pleased. Because it was pleased to take me somewhere I had never been.

The main reason I couldn’t focus on my school work was because I was spending about 16 hours a day talking to JP via phone, text messages or instant messaging. I was spending another two hours obsessing over when I would be able to talk to her next and the remaining six hours dreaming about her. I arranged to travel to Atlanta for Thanksgiving and we were planning to meet for our first real date. One date turned into an entire weekend: one of the best weekends of my life.

I can list for you (some of) the things JP and I did that weekend: we went to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner, we saw the traveling Titanic exhibit, we had coffee and talked for hours, we met Baby H. (who apparently heard I was going to be in town for the weekend, and decided to make an early arrival so that he could meet me before I returned to school). What I can’t tell you is how I felt. Because I have no words for that. It was like finding a piece of myself that I hadn’t known was missing.

I know that JP and I rushed into things. Less than three months after we met, we were living together. It’s not something I would ever recommend. But it worked for us. It more than worked. It was the right decision. This year has not been all wine and roses. It’s mostly been a lot of work. It’s HARD to live with someone. It’s even harder when the other person is basically a stranger. As hard as it has been, it’s been the best year of my life, and there is no part of it that I would trade. I’ve grown and changed this year. I’ve learned about life, relationships and myself. I’ve learned how to put someone else’s needs ahead of my own and how to accept unconditional love. I still have a lot to learn, but I have plenty of time. Another fifty or sixty years, at least.

I’ve been tagged! (I’m actually pretty excited about that, this is the first time I’ve been tagged for anything.)

The Wannabe Urban Housewife has tagged me with the Seven Random or Weird Facts meme.

So here are my seven random facts:

1. I have lost count of how many times I’ve moved. I think it’s somewhere around 30 times. When I was growing up, my parents were somewhat … less than stable. They were the type that thought they could leave their problems behind by moving somewhere and “starting fresh”. This meant moving two or three times per year until I was in high school.

2. I had to fight tooth and nail to go to college. Not because I was a poor student — I was a great student with honor roll grades and good test scores. But my mother believed colleges were “dens of iniquity” and didn’t want me attending one, even a private, Christian college. She also believed that Jesus would be returning any day, and therefore attending college was a waste of time/money when I could be out proselytizing. Since I was under 18, I needed her signature to apply to schools. It took all sorts of begging, pleading, and bribing to get her to sign the papers. And she got to choose the school — a tiny, conservative Christian school twenty minutes from out house. I only lasted there for two years before fleeing the school, the state and my family. I finished my education at the University of North Carolina. Transferring colleges is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my entire life.

3. I found my family online. Well, to be accurate, they found me. My parents had a very tumultuous relationship, and my father was only in my life sporadically until he passed away when I was in high school. Because his family lived out of state, I never met my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. I didn’t even know their names. But they knew mine, and little did I know that they were looking for me. Imagine my surprise when I got a message via MySpace of all places, from someone claiming to be my cousin. And imagine my surprise when I discovered that she and her family lived only an hour from me. Now I have a plethora of aunts, uncles and cousins who are wonderful and who have welcomed me into their family with open arms.

4. Tonight JP and I went out to dinner. When we were leaving, I had to pull out quickly onto a busy street, and I accidentally squealed my tires and felt like a total dork. Everyone on the sidewalk turned to look, and I’m sure they thought I was some stupid teenager trying to show off in my parents Volvo.

5. I took a year off college (in between transferring) and worked in DC during the 2000 election year. When people ask me where I worked, I always give a sketchy answer because I don’t want to admit that I was working for the nation’s oldest and largest conservative organization. That’s right, I said conservative. My super conservative, Christian university got me the job. At the time, I was just starting to question a lifetime of brainwashing and religious indoctrination. Politically, I was a moderate and pretty conflicted about where I was working. Looking back, I’m horrified. I feel like an entirely different person than the young girl who worked there.

6. I have no idea what I want to do with my life. Sometimes I’m really sure I want to go to law school and practice family law, with an emphasis on lgbt families (domestic partnerships, adoption, surrogacy, etc). Sometimes I want to focus on my writing and actually make a career of writing freelance and submitting novels. Other times I want to turn one of my hobbies — knitting or photography, generally — into some sort of career.

7. I have terrible road rage. I hate, hate, hate driving. And of course that means I spend half my life in the car. If I were driving alone on empty roads, I’d be fine. But I can’t STAND other drivers: they cut over without warning, they don’t use their turn signals, they wait until the very last minute to merge even when there is a mile worth of signs warning of the lane ending. It’s always something, and it makes me insane.

I’m tagging: Steph, Mary Jo, arduous, Wide Lawns, (I know that’s not seven, but I think I’m at the end of this chain and almost everyone has already been tagged. If you haven’t been tagged, you’re it! Leave me a comment or email me to let me know that you want to be tagged and I’ll edit my post to link to you.)

Rules:
1- Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog.
2- Share 7 random and or weird things about yourself.
3- Tag 7 random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
4- Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

Every year, when fake spiderwebs and inflatable witches start dotting lawns and costumes begin popping up in department stores, I flash back to a time when that day each year, moreso than any other, cemented my status as an outsider and served as a bitter reminder of my mother’s admonition that I might live “in the world’ but I was not “of the world”.

I dreaded Halloween every year, because for me, October 31 did not mean candy and costumes. It meant sitting in the school hallway doing busy work while my friends had a classroom party. It meant extra church services to pray for the souls of those led astray by Satan; those who erroneously believed Halloween was an innocent day for children. And it meant handing out chick tracks — like this one — instead of candy, hoping that our trick-or-treaters (or their parents) would later read them and see the peril of celebrating the work of Satan. (For those lucky folks unfamiliar with chick tracks, they are tiny primitive comic books that illustrate various Biblical and moral lessons from the point of view of deranged Christian fundamentalists. They contain rewritten history, a host of scientific misinformation, and tragic parables. They don’t mince words when they exhort children and adults alike: repent or burn.)

Because my mother believed that Halloween was “the Devil’s holiday” she not only refused to let us participate in any fun activities, she also saw it as a perfect opportunity to spread the gospel according to Linda. Instead of keeping us home on Halloween, silently sheltering us from unbearable evils like candy corn and tissue paper ghosts, she insisted we attend school and serve as a witness to our friends, classmates and teachers. So while the other children came to school in costume, marched in the school parade and gorged on homemade cupcakes, I sat in the hall, a silent witness for a faith I didn’t understand and would later reject.

And of course, silent witnessing was never enough for my mother. So one day a year, we were given a reprieve from the interminable bus ride and chauffeured to school. This gave my mother the opportunity to come in and explain to my teachers, principals, room parents, and friends exactly why I would not be allowed to participate in any of the planned activities. And even in my conservative, Bible-belt classrooms, I stood out like a sore thumb. (Keep in mind, this is the same district where my high school Biology teacher would one day announce with impunity: “We’re skipping this unit on the big bang and evolution. I’m not teaching this crap. Reread Genesis if you have any questions about how the world was created.”)

The kids alternately pitied and teased me. They were baffled by my lack of involvement and peppered me with questions about why I was not allowed to participate and what other holidays I was not allowed to celebrate. But they understood that I had no control over the situation and obviously I would like to be a part of the party if it were possible. It was the teachers and other parents who were the most insensitive. Unlike my classmates, their parents saw my lack of participation as a personal affront to their values, as an antagonism to their parenting skills. They mistook my mother’s rantings for a direct representation of my own beliefs and would lecture me angrily in an attempt to elicit a confession that I believed Halloween was just an innocent holiday and my mother was wrong and ridiculous. My teachers were similarly offended and additionally, they acted as if I was intentionally messing up their lesson plans (since I was not allowed to complete any Halloween-themed worksheet or activity). As an older child/tween, it was easy to give them what they wanted, completing the assignments and then disposing of them rather than taking them home or rolling my eyes and and shrugging as if to say, “You can’t choose your parents.” But as a young child who feared not only my mother and the church elders, but also the wrath of an angry, vengeful God, I was faced with an unpalatable choice: disrespect my teacher by arguing with her, or jeopardize my eternal soul.

Unlike some of my peers, who were reluctant to give up their Halloween traditions, I was only too thrilled when we were deemed too old for Halloween parties and trick-or-treating. My mother no longer insisted on coming to school to lecture my teachers, and I could beg off any party invitations by inventing a prior commitment. No longer was I the freak who was forbidden from “worshiping the Devil”, I was just another high school student too “cool” for Halloween activities.

It’s been nearly two decades since the last time I sat alone in a hallway pretending not to hear the shouts of delight on the other side of the wall. In most ways, I’ve come so far from that sad little girl that I don’t even think about her anymore. But sometimes I flash back and wish that just one adult would have been sympathetic and understanding, rather than ignoring or exacerbating my misery. Because you know, you really can’t choose your parents. And if they found it frustrating to deal with my mother a couple times a year, they might have taken into consideration the fact that I had to deal with her every day for eighteen years.

A lesbian couple in Australia is suing the doctor who erroneously implanted two embryos instead of one. The couple were adamant about their desire for a single child, and wanted to take no chance on a multiple pregnancy. (Of course, there is never NO chance of multiples, because it’s always possible an embryo will split spontaneously, resulting in monozygotic — ie identical — twins.)

Anyway, the women originally had agreed to implant two embryos in order to increase their chance of conception, but at the last minute, the biological mother asked the doctor only to implant one. He informed her that there would still be a chance of twins, to which she responded, “Do not even joke about it. I only want one.”

However, the doctor forgot to tell the embryolist — who did the actual transfer — about the change, and he implanted two embryos. The doctor has admitted his mistake but is asking that their award be reduced by 35% because they failed to follow proper procedure when they changed their mind at the last minute after previously signing a consent form for two embryos.

The pregnancy resulted in dizygotic (fraternal) twins, meaning both embryos implanted and were carried to term. The couple in question is now parenting three-year-old twin girls. And they are suing the doctor who screwed up for more than $400,000 to cover the costs of raising one of the girls, including fees for a private school.

Okay, up until this point, I’m with the parents whole-heartedly. The doctor screwed up and he should be held accountable. Had the doctor only implanted one embryo, which subsequently split, they would be responsible for the cost of raising two children. But because this child was the direct result of his negligence, he should be responsible for the cost of (a) termination or (b) raising the child.

But here’s where it becomes a case of two wrongs not making a right: rather than just making that point and leaving it in the hands of the judge, the parents have detailed just how miserable they are due to the fact that they have two children. The non-biological mother testified that her partner has lost some of her capacity to love and that their lives have become so mired in the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting that their relationship has suffered. First of all, ALL parents — whether they have one child or twelve — go through changes in their relationship when they have children. Did they really believe that by having only one child, nothing would change at all? Are they insane? But more importantly, are they even taking into account the fact that someday their daughters are going to read these news articles? What kind of parent testifies before the Supreme Court that not only is their child a mistake, but also that their lives have effectively been ruined by the birth of said child? After intense backlash from the public, the parents have come forward and changed their tune a little — claiming that their children are adored and that they are only suing because of the mistake. And while I don’t doubt that they love their children, I have to wonder how a parent who loves their children could disregard the emotional distress they are undoubtedly setting up in their quest for retribution.

Furthermore, I just can’t get past the idea of a parent suing over the conception of a child. Especially a parent who was so desperate to have a child that they used fertility treatments to conceive. It reminds me of the mother I used to nanny for many years ago. She also used IVF to conceive her children, but unlike this couple it didn’t take on the first try. It took her eight years to conceive her first child and another three years to conceive her twins. She called them her “million dollar babies” because she had spent well over that amount on their conception.

Unfortunately for her, she had only ever planned on more than two children. She told me she would have been happy to conceive twins on the first try, but after giving birth once she was adamant about wanting only one more. When she discovered the second pregnancy was twins, she spent months depressed, until she discovered one of the babies was struggling in utero and there was a question that he would survive. Thankfully, he did and he wound up being perfectly healthy. Was she thankful? Did her near loss make her realize how thankful she was? In a word? No. Her reaction was: “Well…I know you shouldn’t WISH for a death of your child, but I couldn’t help thinking maybe it was for the best. After all, I really only wanted two children. But it just didn’t work out.”

Excuse me? The death of your child didn’t “work out”. Forgive me if I don’t cry for you.

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