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Why I Don’t Say the Pledge July 3, 2011

Posted by frrobins in activism, atheism, Christianity, Church and State, critical thinking, Current Events, Memories, Personal, Pledge, Politics, Religion.
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I don’t say The Pledge of Allegiance. I haven’t since I was in junior high school. One day I’m hoping I will get the guts to not stand during it. Why? Because I find saying the Pledge rather anti-patriotic. I feel that to be an active participant in a democracy you have to think critically and keep yourself informed on issues. Patriotism is not a passive process for me but an active one. Saying someone someone else wrote does not employ critical thinking nor does it illuminate one on important issues facing our country. In fact, I think it discourages critical thinking by inducing everyone to say the same words without thinking about what they are saying.

And since most of us started saying the Pledge in elementary school, this just reinforces the idea to me that it is a rote habit rather than something we are thinking about.

I was probably five or six when my parents explained to me that while they would say the Pledge, they would be silent during the “under God” part. We are atheists and don’t believe in God, and feel that saying “under God” violates our conscience. So for awhile I would say the Pledge and stay quiet during “under God.” Until the third grade when other kids found out I was an atheist and teased me for it. Until then it never occurred to me that I would be teased for not believing in one less god than everyone else, and it never occurred to me that my religious convictions were something to be hidden. Yet when I started a new school having people find out I was an atheist was something that terrified me.

So then I was caught in a trap. I know a lot of people would say that I should have just said “under God” and shut up about it. Yet I have always been driven by the need to live my life truthfully. Even as people around me rejected me, I could never stop being who I was without causing myself extreme mental anguish. So on the one hand I was terrified that if I didn’t say “under God” people at my new school would notice and ask why, yet if I said it I felt that I was being dishonest. It was a horrendous dilemma for an elementary school student to find herself in.

Sometimes I’d say “under God” other times I wouldn’t. One time I even noticed another kid nervously refrain from saying “under God”. I remember wanting to ask him so badly if he believed the same way I did but was too scared to.

Then one day, I’m not sure when, I just stopped saying it. Some days I would, others I wouldn’t. I would always stand so as not to draw too much attention to myself, yet I was quiet the whole time. By the time I finished junior high it was a habit. By the time I was in high school, I’d even stopped putting my hand over my heart.

I’ll make no bones that it started out as a way out of my dilemma and that it is now, as an adult, that I rationally justify my actions. And the reason is that no one should be compelled to say something they don’t believe in. This is America, after all, where we have the freedom to worship one God, or one Goddess, or many Gods and Goddesses, or none at all. This is America where we have freedom of speech, which includes the freedom to not be compelled to spout views you don’t agree with. Yet every morning we compel children to recite words as if they are automatons.

And it’s not just atheists who have moral dilemmas concerning the Pledge. Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christian groups experience a conflict because their beliefs prevent them from pledging allegiance to anyone other than God.

My questions to people who support forcing others to say the Pledge is, how is democracy served by forcing people to say a pre-written pledge? What do schoolchildren learn about being active participants in a democracy by saying the Pledge? How are we teaching kids to think critically when we are forcing them to spout words unthinkingly from their mouths? How does saying the Pledge foster patriotism? What is gained by forcing people to say things they don’t agree with? Seems to me like it’s just a good way to incite them to rebel.

And to those who say you can just say quiet while everyone else says it, I will point to my above experiences. Staying quiet while everyone else says the Pledge is a good way to paint a target on yourself in school. Kids should not be put in the position between following their conscience and fear of being bullied for being different. Period.

If you want to say the Pledge every morning, go ahead. I won’t stop you. If you want your kids to say it, then say it with them in the morning before they leave for school. Yet everyone else should not be forced to say the Pledge if they are not amenable, and I for one am not.


The Choices We Make: Mother’s Day and College May 6, 2011

Posted by frrobins in Memories, Parenting, Personal.
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Today someone on Facebook posted about how she was ticked off about Mother’s Day and wanted childless college grads to get a day. The conversation on her comment progressed and several people criticized mothers for not being responsible and getting college degrees and merely popping out kids.

Ummmm…I’m a mother AND I have a Masters degree. I got my college education out of the way before I became a mother. For the record, the person complaining has a bachelors.

I was bothered by this for several reasons. For one it seems like some stupid extension of the working mom vs stay-at-home mom debate. This time it’s women who have kids vs women who don’t. Really folks? Really?

I have always been very outspoken in my belief that a woman can have a very fulfilling life without having a husband and without having children. I know plenty of women who have chosen this path and who are very satisfied with their lives. I would never criticize them for not having children.

So why should I get criticized for having one?

The other side of this is that it pits people with college degrees against those who don’t have them. When I was a recent college grad and was just starting out in the career world, I was very proud of my degree and disillusioned by how little it meant in the real world when you didn’t have the work experience to go with it. In my first interview out of college I was asked if I ever had to meet a deadline at work. Considering my past work had been retail experience and I didn’t have actual work experience with deadlines, I found as close of a situation to it as I could. I said that when I was in college I often had project deadlines and that if I didn’t meet them I wouldn’t pass. One of the women interviewing me was very satisfied with my response. The other snarkily said, “But no REAL work experience.”

I was a bit taken aback by the tone of her voice. And so was the other woman interviewing me. It was my first experience with the college degree vs non degree divide. Frankly, a lot of people without college degrees are very defense about it. And after working with some people who do have degrees and who lord it over those who don’t, I can see why.

The thing is, it isn’t helpful.

I worked hard in college. It was not easy. I have a learning disability and had to work hard for every grade I made. Getting a degree is an accomplishment of mine that should be recognized and lauded.

Just as the person who has worked hard at a job should be lauded. Just because s/he wasn’t working hard getting a degree doesn’t mean s/he wasn’t working hard doing something else.

I chose to wait to have children until I had all of the education I felt I needed under my belt. Other women would rather have children younger and get their education later. And others find themselves with an unexpected pregnancy and make the choice to keep the baby.

I’m not going to criticize any woman over the timing she chooses to have kids, not even the ones with unexpected pregnancies. I was fortunate enough to have the knowledge and resources to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. I also went through my twenties during the backlash against the idea that parenting would be the most fulfilling and wonderful experience in a persons’ life, so I went into motherhood knowing it would be hard, back breaking work. I have adjusted to life as a mother rather smoothly and I thank my lucky stars that I could do it when I was ready.

I cannot imagine being thrown into this unprepared. And a lot of women are.

I see so many people criticize them for getting pregnant when they’re not ready. Yet I don’t see people recognizing them for doing their best to take care of their children. Nope, they’re not perfect. But then I’m not the perfect parent either. Like most people, these women are doing the best with the choices they made.

Some people choose to go to college. Others don’t. Some people choose to have kids. Others don’t. Most people work hard and try to do the right thing. With the exception of able bodied people who never move out of their parents’ house and get a job and those who abuse their kids, most people do the best they have with their lot in life.

I know a lot of people would criticize me for saying we should recognize and appreciate people for doing the right thing. We have this belief in our society that we should just do the right thing because it is right and therefore no accolades should be given. As a behavioral counselor, let me say something is very wrong with this view. People do need support and praise for doing the right thing, because doing it is so hard. And people like to feel appreciated. That’s nothing to be criticized for. It’s a basic human need.

I worked my butt off as a college student. And I got a day to celebrate my achievement. It was called Graduation Day. The thing about college is that once it is over, it’s over. I don’t see the need every year to have a day to celebrate the fact that I got a degree.

I’m working my butt off raising my son. I’m not going to say that it is harder than being a student, nor that it is easier. They simply don’t compare. Needless to say, I’m not just sitting on my ass everyday while young women everywhere else study hard to earn their degrees. I have pretty much broken my back raising this kid (well, almost. I pulled a muscle in my shoulder and strained my lower back by carrying him and rocking him so much). I was a college student once, and now I’m not. I’m a mother now and I will never stop being his mother.

My college graduation day was a fairly big affair with a ceremony and a party. A once in a lifetime celebration that marked the closing of a chapter in my life. Mother’s Day will be much more simple. Some gestures of appreciation for something that will be ongoing in my life. I don’t see the harm in having it every year.

And to those who would criticize my choices, may be you should get comfortable with the ones you made in life and not focus so much on mine.

Smarter Activism March 18, 2011

Posted by frrobins in activism, communication, critical thinking, Current Events, iraq, Memories, Personal, Politics, Schools.
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It might seem ironic that I went through a crisis of faith as a college student. That’s the best way my husband and I could describe it. I went through this even though I was and am an atheist. Born and raised. Yet while some atheists run away in fear from the word ‘faith’ there are things I did and still do have faith in. For me this came from my Humanistic philosophy. I believe that people are mostly good and will do the right thing. And this was where the crisis in faith came in.

The invasion of Iraq and subsequent re-election of Bush were what caused it. I knew that we had no valid reason for invading Iraq. I felt it was morally wrong. And I could not believe so many people supported it. I protested, wrote letters, pestered my acquaintances with anti-war rhetoric. I did the stuff that reformers before me did that lead to progress. No one ever told me that those reformers experienced more failures than successes in their life. While Susan B. Anthony secured some property rights for women, she fell way short of her big goal of earning the right to vote. And the setback were numerous.

It was bad enough that Iraq was invaded. It was worst that Bush was actually re-elected. I wore my CD player out with Green Day’s American Idiot and went through a period of several years where I gave up on activism all together. People were idiots and it was useless trying to reason with them. It was a small comfort that shortly after his re-election people woke up to their mistake, and that long term Iraq has been considered a fiasco. It doesn’t change the fact that many have died unnecessarily and that things are worse now.

Eventually I got back into activism, though not the way I did before. I hope I’m doing it smarter. How? Well, trying to figure out how to repackage my message.

This is hard. Studies have shown that when people are entrenched in a position, reading evidence against their position only strengthens their previously held beliefs. Then there is the confirmation bias, where people seek out information that confirms their beliefs. Making it unlikely they’d even read what I have to say anyway.

So, how to reach across the aisle and convince people of the validity of my viewpoint? This isn’t an “I’m smart and right, you’re an idiot and wrong’ thing. For instance, I really don’t care about your religious beliefs, so long as you don’t try to impose those beliefs on me. What I’m talking about is stuff that does affect me. Such as global warming. The evidence supports that it is occurring and we need to do something about it. This affects me. How do I make people see the reality of the threat here and, more importantly, get them to see the importance of eco-friendly planning? Fear mongering works. People are irrational creatures. Rather than think rationally we think with our emotions. Even the most logical person will think irrationally in the throes of fear and anger. Hence, how we found ourselves in Iraq.

I don’t like fear mongering. I respect its power and I don’t like it. I don’t want to scare people into making decisions…it tends to lead them into making the wrong ones. I want people to look at the evidence rationally and make informed decisions.

So people don’t make decisions about important things rationally. I’m against using irrational means to spread information even if it benefits my cause. How do I get around this? I know! Teach kids critical thinking skills while they’re young!

Consider that a lot of people don’t know how to make informed decisions because they were never taught how. I’m going to use Shirley Sherrod as an example. An edited video came out showing that Sherrod, a black woman, discriminated against a white farmer. Or did it? When the full video was seen, it was obvious that Sherrod had done no such thing. By that time it was too late. Her reputation was damaged and she had lost her job.

What if, rather than judging Sherrod by a few video clips, people had watched the full tape from the beginning? It is ridiculously easy to manipulate sound bites or take written words out of context. What if people looked up the original source of a quote/video/sound bites, etc?

All of this can be taught. It’s not difficult to learn. Kids can learn it in history class. What if, instead of memorizing dates of events they will forget during summer break, we teach kids skills that historians use to determine what happened in the past? What if we explain the difference between a primary and secondary source and have kids find examples of each. What if we show how information can be corrupted, either intentionally or unintentionally?

Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” In Antonia Frasier’s biography of this infamous queen, she details how this quote had been attributed to many an unpopular queen through history, and how with Marie Antoinette it stuck. This misinformation pervades our past, present, and will be out there in our future. How do we inoculate our kids against it?

What if we showed how words and information can be manipulated by governments and other groups of people and taught children how to check their facts, think critically, and question what they see and read?

Of course, this would require a major overhaul of how we see education in America. It would require letting go of our standardized testing fetish and introducing a more difficult curriculum into the classroom. It would mean teaching kids that may be our government wasn’t always all good. And I live in a state that wants to use history class as a propaganda machine for saying that the reason the south succeeded was a state’s rights issue that had nothing to do with slavery *sighs*.

So how to reform the schools to teach critical thinking? How to convince people that this is needed? Especially when giving out harmful standardized tests is a big money maker for some people and the current broken system benefits some politicians? I can already hear cries of liberals wanting to brain wash children into godlessness, when in reality I could care less about their religious beliefs and just want people to think critically about issues that affect us all (we’re not on this rock alone). Heck, critical thinking is the opposite of brainwashing. I use it even with sources I trust or things I want to believe.

For instance, Jon Stewart once made the comment that Sarah Palin made rape victims pay for their rape kits. Alarmed, I went the check and found that while her chief of police did this, whether or not Palin supported it is undetermined. Now, I dislike Palin. I think she is harmful to the women’s movement and like to collect ammunition against her. But if I start passing around misinformation, then I look like a fool.

So, to get people to think critically about issues we need to teach these skills in school, which means reforming an educational system that favors rote teaching and blind acceptance, which means convincing people that changing it to teach critical thinking is a worthy goal without using fear mongering. Whew! So ladies and gents, how do I pull that off? Well, if you have any ideas I’d love to hear them. Because I haven’t figured it out yet.

Freedom Isn’t Free February 28, 2011

Posted by frrobins in Current Events, Memories, Politics.
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“Freedom isn’t free!”

I used to seethe when someone would fling that in my face. I was an angry college student, doing everything in my power to prevent the invasion of Iraq. I wrote my representatives. I went to war protests. I tried to talk some sense into people. I voted in the 2004 elections. It was to no avail. Iraq was invaded despite my efforts.

That mantra would get under my skin when some pro-war supporter threw it at me. Of course freedom isn’t free. Unlike them, I didn’t see how invading Iraq would protect my freedom, or the freedom of the Iraqis. Freedom can’t be imposed on people. It’s something that the individual person has to fight for him or herself.

Right now, this battle is being fought in Libya. By protesting their government, demanding change, holding their representatives accountable they are demanding their freedom. For some, the cost is their life. For those still fighting, I wish them luck.

Recently, people have earned their freedom in Egypt and Tunisia. I hope that the people in those countries work to create a government that serves the needs of the people rather than fall to the danger of having a new tyrant put in place.

Freedom is not found by invading foreign countries. Nor is it found by unquestioning obedience to a political leader. While I voted for Obama, if he decides to invade Libya you bet I would object. Freedom is not earned by slapping an American flag sticker on your car and continuing on with your day. It is gained by keeping oneself informed of the actions of one’s own government, by questioning that government, by letting one’s representatives know your opinions, and by voting a representative out of office should s/he not meet one’s needs.

When a young woman writes her elected officials, she is earning her freedom. When a man joins in peaceful protest with others, he is earning his freedom. When a brand spanking new 18 year old votes for the first time, she is earning her freedom.

I am heartened by what is going on in the Middle East. Back in college, I used to tell people that when the Iraqi’s hunger for freedom was greater than their fear of their government they would rebel on their own. And that victory would be greater than one imposed on them because they themselves would have earned it.

In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and other countries, this is proving to be the case. They have taken the first steps on a long road. I wish them luck in navigating the bends and avoiding the potholes.

Birthday Bash! February 22, 2011

Posted by frrobins in birthday parties, Memories, Parenting, Personal.
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I’m wondering when I’ll get to the point that I wish my son were younger rather than older. Right now I can’t wait till we get to the birthday parties. Above all I am planning for a fun time. There’s a park by my house that you can host a party at for free. There are four playgrounds, one of which is a water one and a covered pavilion for picnics. Though his birthday is in November and it will be too cold for the waterpark, November in Texas means it will probably still be warm enough for the slides and swings and picnic. I’d make a cake! Or may be my mom will make it because I’m not that great of a cook. For his first birthday, it would be family mostly. May be a few friends.

I guess I don’t dream big enough. I just learned that parents are spending thousands, like $50,000, for their precious darling’s first birthday! Or $30,000 for their little princess’ 6th one! Man, am I a cheapskate!

The thing I have to wonder when I see an article like this is how many people out there are actually holding extravagant birthday parties for their kids? Are there any solid numbers? Surely in a recession plenty of parents are scaling back. How many are holding extravagant parties vs how many are holding simple ones? What’s the average amount of money spent on a child’s birthday, and then what’s the mode (refresher in statistics, extreme numbers on either side of the scale can distort the average. That’s why it’s good to ask for the mode, which is the number that appears the most often, which in some cases gives you a better picture of what is really happening)?

I’m sure that throughout time there have always been parents who have thrown extravagant and expensive birthday parties. Is the number truly increasing? It’s hard to say. But it sure makes the news!

I’m not exactly the most social person around, so may be it’s not surprise that I’ve not been to an over-the-top party. And I’m glad, even if those parties did look like fun.

Because, amazingly, the birthday parties I had growing up were fun. And most of them involved swimming in our backyard pool with friends and eating a cake my mom baked or bought from Kroger, depending on how much time she had. Sans presents, the cost of the party probably didn’t go over $50, though I never bothered to ask. I certainly never felt neglected.

And I never felt like I had something to prove. My birthday parties were similar to those of my friends. We’d hang out and eat cake and the birthday girl would open presents. There was no pressure to outperform each other, no need to make sure that the party next year was even grandeur. While I can’t speak for my friends, I could look forward each year to having fun on my special day, and my biggest worry (and this one only when I became a teenager) was that I would look fat in my bathing suit.

I keep thinking back to my wedding. I did not have an extravagant wedding and did not want one. It did not top $10,000. Yet it was the most elaborate thing I had ever thrown. And it was stressful as hell! Seriously, I recommend eloping. While some people probably thrive off the planning, stress, and small talk with people that you barely know, I don’t. And I have to wonder how many kids thrive off it as well.

At any rate, I told my son that he better not expect anything more elaborate than a birthday party at Chucky Cheese when he gets older…and we’re not even going to rent it out for our own private use. Somehow, I think he’ll be just fine.

Oh Those Teachers! February 16, 2011

Posted by frrobins in Books, Memories, Personal, Schools.
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I’ve been reading the infamous Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. For those not familiar with the book, Chua caused quite a stir when an excerpt from her book was published maintaining that Chinese parenting methods are superior. To many readers, Chua’s methods didn’t seem superior, they seemed authoritarian and abusive. Later another article was published saying that Chua’s words were taken out of context to be far worse than it actually was. So I decided to read it for myself and see. I’m almost done and will have more thoughts on that later. One thing that really jumped at me in her book, though, is her criticism of “Western” parents for siding with their children rather than teachers.

According to her, if a Western child gets poor grades, parents blame the teacher. If a “Chinese” child does, then the parents work that much harder with the child. You never criticize the teacher. Ever.

I do know of parents who seemed unable to believe that their child was anything less than perfect and did, as Chua maintained, unfairly blame the teacher. Yet they were in the minority. If anything my experience has been that sometimes parents aren’t complaining enough.

There are a lot of good teachers out there. And there are some teachers that shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a classroom. When I was in junior high, there were several teachers who fit the bill. Perhaps the worst was the one I was fortunate only to hear about as I was not in his class. Though I knew to stay far away from his classroom. You were liable to be hit by a flying book traveling out of the classroom through the door and into the hall. I wish I were joking.

Yes, he threw books. He threw pens, pencils, chalk, erasers, papers, anything on his desk, anything he could find. He was known for manhandling students in a fit of anger. Anger management was apparently something he was quite unfamiliar with. What’s amazing is that for two of the three years I was at that school, he was there. During my last year in junior high, either the school wised up to the fact that he was a law suit waiting to happen or a parent did finally complain, because he was gone and good riddance. Last I checked, students don’t learn well in an environment where the teacher could physically harm them at any minute.

Another teacher, Coach H., was one I was not so lucky to miss out on. Supposedly, the class I was taking from him was Texas history. I say supposedly because I learned very little about Texas history in his class. On the first day of class he talked about actors, actresses and athletes who were from Texas (half of whom he just happened to know and be friends with, of course). And we had to memorize trivia about these famous people because there would be a quiz on them. Yup, Texas history of the modern rich and famous.

Then there were the movies. He showed us The Birds. No, this was not a nature documentary about the native birds of Texas, but the Alfred Hitchcock movie. It’s a good movie. I have no idea what it has to do with Texas history. May be one of the actors was from Texas. Another movie we watched was The Bad Seed. Once again, no idea about how this movie relates to Texas history.

He showed us Dallas Cowboy football games. While I see the connection, I somehow doubt that the school board this in mind when drafting the curriculum.

When he wasn’t showing us movies and sports games, he was using the classroom as a pulpit to expose his views on just about everything. He talked about how school prayer should be allowed and how the horrible liberals would take the pledge away. He maintained that a woman could be as ugly as hell, but if she was a good cook she would be able to bag herself a man. After flaunting that bit of sexism, he then asked “How many of you GIRLS can cook?” and went around the classroom interrogating each girl on what she could cook and giving disapproving looks to the ones who couldn’t cook much. He then asked the ones who could cook to demonstrate their knowledge by taking everyone step by step on how to make spaghetti with homemade sauce. If someone can see the connection to Texas history, please let me know because I can’t.

Now while I think it’s important for children to be exposed to other points of view, the teacher should not act as the arbiter of the “correct” view vs “incorrect” view. There’s a difference between facilitating a discussion between students and spouting off your own views while disparaging other points of view. Let’s just say I was often very uncomfortable in his class.

The closest he came to talking about Texas history was when he talked about the hard life of a cattle rancher. And his idea of teaching was, after the whole class had failed a test, having us spend a class period reading and re-reading the same chapter over and over.

For another assignment he wanted us to draw a map of the United States. Why, I don’t know, but he gave a long speech on how he didn’t want a rush job (though he only gave us a few days to complete it). Well, I can’t draw. It’s something I REALLY wanted to be able to do. I took classes when I was in elementary school and practiced a lot. However, I have a spectrum of learning disabilities, several of which affect my fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. I never got good at it. I spent hours drawing the map. I worked really hard on it. I thought it turned out well all things considered.

I guess he didn’t. He turned it back into me with “Rush job!” written across it. Which smacked. He had no way of really knowing how long I spent on it. And it still didn’t have anything to do with Texas history.

My grades suffered. Usually history was one of my best subjects. And my grades in other courses remained good. From what I related to them, it wasn’t too hard for my parents to believe that I had a dud teacher. They complained and asked for me to be placed in a different class.

I remember the skepticism directed at me by my new history teacher. She believed I was the problem, not Coach H. I actively participated in her class. I got good grades. Half way through the sixth week grading period when progress reports were sent out, I had an A in her class. She wrote on the report that my grades were based on daily work only, no tests. When I was finally tested it didn’t matter. I still had an A. And for the rest of the year I made an A in her class. I don’t know what she eventually made of me, but I do know I was lucky to be out of his class. One of my friends wasn’t so lucky.

Her mother complained, but for whatever reason she had a harder time getting her daughter out of Couch H.’s class. And Coach H. started to target her in class, playing himself as a victim of her persecution. What is ironic is that while he was targeting my friend for having a parent who complained about him, he spent quite a lot of his class time talking about how his childrens’ teachers were so unfair to them and how he had to constantly go up there and correct those errant teachers!

Yes, Coach H. was a piece of work. Eventually we learned that he got transferred to another school…one where the parents would be less likely to complain.

As I mentioned above, I’ve seen teachers unfairly singled out by the irate parent who thinks that his/her precious darling couldn’t have possibly gotten a failing grade. And I’ve seen parents stay quiet when they should complain. Me and every other student in Coach H.’s were not learning about history. And without our input, nothing would have changed.

I find myself wondering what Tiger Mom would have done if Coach H. had taught one of her daughters. I doubt that she would have been thrilled with her girls watching football games when they should be learning about Stephen F. Austin. I wonder if she would have asked for them to be moved to a different class or if she would have told them to suck it up and memorize which cities Phylicia Rashād and Nolan Ryan are from. And if the latter, I wonder what would have been gained.

Better Late Than Never February 9, 2011

Posted by frrobins in atheism, Christianity, Memories, Personal, Religion, Schools.
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Like many people, I always think of the perfect comeback long after a discussion has subsided. I’ll usually be driving home, replaying the conversation in my head when the perfect response will come to me. Well, this one came about ten years too late. It’s such a good one that I felt the need to share.

Way back in high school, I was sitting in my physics class, waiting for the bell to ring to signal the start of class. Beside me, one of my peers was reading outloud from a Bible. From her self-righteous bearing I know she was just daring someone to tell her to stop. I didn’t take the bait.

Yet now it occurs to me I should have said, “Hey, can you read Gen 19:30 for me please? It is one of my favorites!”

The Darnedest Things May 27, 2010

Posted by Bill in Memories, Personal, Television, Uncategorized.
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Hearing of Art Linkletter’s death brought a smile to my face, not, of course, because he was dead, but because I was reminded of when I used to watch House Party with my babysitter. Art Linkletter ranks right up there with Captain Kangaroo and Underdog as being this then five-year-old’s favorite TV personalities. (Fred Flintstone would have made the list except I wasn’t allowed to watch him since one of the Flintstones episodes gave me a nightmare. You know the one– it was when Fred was on jury duty and voted to convict the accused, and the guy ran around saying, “Fred Flintstone I’m gonna get you!” I woke up screaming with that guy’s words reverberating in my head and wasn’t allowed to watch the show for a couple of years.)

I was the youngest of four girls, but my situation was somewhat unusual at the time in that my sisters were all two years apart, but there was a four-year gap between my youngest older sister and me. Nowadays a four-year gap between siblings is fairly common but in those days of stairstep kids, the four-year gap was almost enough to catapult me into a different family. My sisters all remember a different house, different friends and a different baby sitter. Their babysitter was Auntie Love, a wonderful woman who adopted our family and became our honorary grandmother. Because she took care of my sisters before I was born, I only remember her from visits my family made to her house once or twice a year. I always enjoyed the visits and I liked her, but she wasn’t MY babysitter.

My family moved to Lafayette, Indiana, when I was not quite a year old. My dad went back to Purdue to work on his Masters and my mother got a job teaching school. My first babysitter was Mrs. Becker, who came into our home every day to take care of me and my sisters once they got home from school. I barely remember her, but I’m sure I liked her. However, it is Mrs. Lemond who I really remember as MY babysitter.

Mrs. Lemond was only my sitter for one year- the year I went to Kindergarten. She was a widow who lived catty-corner across the street from us. Every morning my sisters and I would stop by her house and drop off my after-school clothes and a toy or two. I would then go on to morning Kindergarten and be delivered back at Mrs. Lemond’s house by the school safety patrol in time for Lunchtime Theater and a nap. When I woke up from the nap, I would watch Captain Kangaroo. Then I had to sit through Merv Griffin (yuck!) and Mike Douglas (double yuck!) and then Art Linkletter would come on. Him I liked.

Mrs. Lemond was a quiet woman, but she introduced me to a lot of things during that one year she was my babysitter. She had a huge old evergreen tree in her backyard, and I used to enjoy going out and hiding under the branches, pretending it was a house. She had a big old pool table in her TV room, and I liked rolling the balls around on the table and trying to roll them into the holes. She introduced me to Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls, which she would buy me when she and I would drive to a nearby drugstore. She also unwittingly introduced me to the concept of a Mental Health Day.  One morning to my sisters’ surprise when we stopped by Mrs. Lemond’s house to drop off my stuff, I announced that I didn’t feel like going to school that day. Even more surprisingly Mrs. Lemond merely said, “Okay,” and I stayed with her all day, guiltily enjoying the morning game shows and reruns of Dick Van Dyke. When my dad got home that night he was not amused, and he immediately tromped over to Mrs. Lemond’s house to let her know that allowing me to play hooky was NOT acceptable.

Some of my best memories of Mrs. Lemond were from when she and I would watch Art Linkletter together. I liked his gentle manner, and I loved when he would interview the kids. Being a kid myself, I didn’t understand why people laughed at their answers because they seemed like perfectly reasonable answers to me. But what I really liked was the toys he handed out to the kids at the end. I would have loved to have gone on his show– what could be better? Sit in a chair, talk to a nice old man and get a brand new shiny toy? Pure nirvana to a five-year-old!

So hearing of Art Linkletter’s death reminded me of that kindergarten year with Mrs. Lemond, when life followed a predictable pattern, and excitement was driving to the drug store once a week and getting a Little Debbie Swiss Cake Roll. Mrs. Lemond died many years ago, but both she and Art Linkletter will continue to occupy a special place in my memory and in my heart. When I was five years old I loved them both, and earning the love of a five-year-old is not a bad thing at all.

The Fog Creeps in on Little Cat Feet (Part 2) November 9, 2009

Posted by Bill in health, Memories, Mental illness, Personal.
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Perception is everything, and perception is one of the things that makes it so hard to deal with being mentally ill because people think it’s all in your head. Echoing Professor Harold Hill, they espouse the “think method.” Just think happy thoughts and you can fly. Whistle while you work and let a smile be your umbrella. The power of positive thinking. People don’t understand why our twenty-five-year-old daughter still lives at home, why she doesn’t work, why she only recently started back to school. “You need to be firm with her, make her take responsibility, quit mollycoddling her, use Tough Love” as though putting her in time out would make the fireworks stop going off inside her head. They don’t see what we see, how she doesn’t watch movies because she can’t concentrate on them for long enough to follow the plot, how she forgets simple things because of the lightning careening in her head, how her brain is exhausted from the lack of sleep.

How do you explain this to people who equate mental illness with thoughts of Sybil, split personality, homeless people hearing voices on the street? They don’t understand, can’t understand because there’s nothing to relate it to, how someone can look and seem perfectly healthy and yet be unable to do the things we take for granted- watch a movie, go to work, go out with friends.

She’s fortunate to have a family who understands her illness, just as I am fortunate to have a husband to understand mine, because mental illness is so poorly understood. As I look back through my own family I can see the trail of mental illness through the family tree, misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and left untreated. I look at a friend of my older daughter, a lovely, intelligent girl who first started showing the signs of mental illness in her late teens until one night she showed up at our house in the grips of a full blown delusional episode telling us a bizarre story of her mother holding her down while her father raped her, pointing to non-existent bruises on her arm, laughing, hopping and reaching her hand out to wave away the demons that only she could see. At one point, she told us her parents had taken her to a witch doctor to dispel the spirit that had taken hold of her, and I can understand the parents’  frustration, the desire to do something, anything that would remove the illness from their daughter’s mind and make her whole again. Since she was over eighteen years of age, the mental ward could not keep her without her consent so although she was clearly not capable of taking care of herself, they had to let her go.

Part of me feels that the mental wards should have been able to keep her against her will, to force the medications into her. I rationalize this by saying that if she were in her right mind, she surely would want herself to be treated, would want someone to make her take the medicines that allow the cylinders in her brain to fire properly, but my daughter reminds me that the same rationale could have been used to hospitalize her, and I remember back to the days when she was first diagnosed, when I received the phone call at work that would rock my universe.

She was happy, healthy, working at a job she loved, with a good group of friends, going to college, had the world by the tail. Our golden child, the girl for whom everything came easily. Smart enough to graduate from high school and start college at age fifteen, to maintain a 4.0 average in a science major, to impress her college professors with the depth of her thought. Life was good until the day my cell phone rang, and a strange woman’s voice said, “You don’t know me but I am a counselor at the psychiatric hospital. We have your daughter here, and she’s in a bad state. We think she needs to stay here but she doesn’t want to.”

I tried to take it in. “Which daughter?” I asked dumbly. “Are you sure you have the right number?”

“She’s got some cuts on her arm. They are pretty bad. Are you aware she’s been cutting herself? Did you know she’s tried to kill herself?”

Suddenly nothing was important but getting to the hospital. I got up and walked away from my job, calling my husband from the car, driving with tears running down my face, knowing I had to get to the hospital and not sure of what I would find. I envisioned my daughter curled up in a fetal position in the corner. I thought of long cuts raking down her arm, of stitches, of arms so swathed with bandages I would be unable to see her beneath.

When I got there, I was sent to a room where my daughter was sitting in a chair at a table by herself. I walked in and she grinned sheepishly at me. “I don’t want to stay here,” she said flatly, defiantly.

I looked at her cautiously. She looked normal. No bandages, no blood, no fetal contortions. “Let me see your arms,” I said mildly.

She held them out and I saw two thin red lines, scratches. Not even bandage worthy. “I don’t want to stay here,” she repeated.

“Let’s talk about it,” I said.

She and I talked, and then the counselor came in and we talked, and as we talked, the more convinced I became that my daughter did not need to be in this place, did not need to be shut away from a job she loved, from all contact with friends she valued, away from the family who loved her, to be put in isolation among strangers, treated alongside patients who heard voices and built castles in the sky. The counselor didn’t want to let her go and threatened to call the police to swear that she was a danger to herself so they could commit her, but I counter offered that I would keep her under supervision. The counselor and I bargained and finally we were allowed to leave on the condition that I would watch my daughter 24 hours a day, would lock away all sharp implements, and hide all the pills.

When I got her home I started a volley of phone calls till I got her into see a psychiatrist on an emergency consultation. My husband and I started our new regime of keeping her under close supervision—making her leave the door of her bedroom open, taking away her car keys, taking away her freedoms, transforming ourselves from parents into jailers.

With the passage of time and experience gained, we can see now that, while her condition was serious, our gut instincts were right, and she did not need to be locked away. Our family doctor had been treating her for depression, had given her samples left by a pharmaceutical salesman. One day while under the effect of this drug she picked up a pair of scissors lying on her desk and gave her wrist two quick scratches. When she showed them to the doctor at her next visit, he quite rightly grew concerned and sent her to the hospital. It wasn’t till the psychiatrist entered the picture and told us about the importance of matching the anti-depressant to the patient that she was able to achieve some relief from her mental illness.

So where does that leave me on the issue of forcibly hospitalizing the mentally ill? Nowhere but with the realization that like most issues, it is not clear cut. A thin regime of pills separates my daughter from the people on the street. The difference is that she has a family who is supportive, who will make sure she maintains her medications, who will make sure she cooperates with her treatment. The people on the street, for whatever reason, do not. Nevertheless, I cannot just say with surety that they should be scooped up and hospitalized, medicated and tranquilized. When I am in the depths of my bottomless pit should I be forcibly medicated? Or should I be allowed to wait it out while it sits on its silent haunches until it moves on?

The Fog Creeps in on Little Cat Feet (Part 1) November 2, 2009

Posted by Bill in health, Memories, Mental illness, Personal.
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“The fog creeps in on little cat feet,” says the poem by Carl Sandburg. As I read that I think that Sandburg has to have had personal experience with chronic depression because that is what depression is like. It is insidious, creeping over you slowly, stealthily so you aren’t aware until you are deep within its grasp and unable to get out.

I have dealt with chronic depression for years, mostly very well with the help of medication until last December I did what is hard to understand- I went off my meds. The reasons are varied—we were going through a rough financial patch and trying to save money every way we could; I felt really good and didn’t think I needed them; I ran out and just didn’t have time to get the prescription renewed. And so on and so on. Yes, I went through withdrawal—mainly incredible nausea, but I weathered it, welcoming the loss of the few pounds that would surely accompany it.

There were advantages to not being on the meds—most notably I wasn’t sleepy all the time. See, the thing with drugs for mental illness is you seldom take just one, because they all have various side effects so you have to take several to balance out all the side effects and all the symptoms. The drug I took for depression also made me tense and gave me tremors and didn’t do anything to calm my panic attacks so I took another drug to balance that out. That drug works really well to handle the tension and panic but also makes me sleepy. One drug revs me up, the other calms me down, and I need both of them to function. Yes, it’s weird, but that’s mental illness for you.

At first there was this euphoria to being off meds that everyone told me I would be taking for the rest of my life. It’s the stigma of mental illness, the dislike I had for owing my daily ability to function on a couple of pills. Yes, I’ve taken thyroid medication for years but that has a real, quantifiable measurable effect. My doctor can tell that it’s working by looking at my lab results. The same with my cholesterol medication. The same with my blood sugar medication. But there’s nothing physical to look at with anti-depressants. The only way to tell they are working is by asking me how I feel. And for a brief period of time I think I feel really good. I relish those times. It’s almost a mania as I feel better than I have in years, creative, full of energy. My creative juices flow- I write, I work out, I start new activities, I reach out to talk to friends I haven’t heard from in years.

But then the ebb. The way too many times my husband asks me if I’m okay, if I need to talk to the doctor, if I need to start my meds back up. The times when I am unable to do more than lay on the sofa in a black haze and wish the world away. The times when I am at the bottom of a deep, dank, dark well, a pit of blackness. I cannot remember what it was like to feel good. I can’t remember anything but the darkness. I don’t want to climb out of the well; I just want to stay there, alone in the dark. I don’t care if I never see light again.

Before long the depression has taken over me and I spend more time at the bottom of the well until one day I finally admit to my husband that I need to go back on the meds. But this, like everything else in mental illness does not come easily either, for there is a price to pay for going off the meds. When I start taking the pills again, I go through reverse withdrawal. My body punishes me for taking away the medicine by ratcheting up the side effects. The nausea is unbearable and for days I am unable to eat. The pain is physical—the tension settles in my brow so I feel as though any minute I am going to burst into tears, but I hold the tears back until they press inward on the nerves of my face and skull, pounding and throbbing until they explode. My teeth clench and my jaw shudders and the back of my head aches from pulling against my teeth. My hands tremble so that I cannot type, cannot operate a computer mouse; at any given moment something I am holding might slip from my grasp. My feet and legs tremble so I stumble when I walk.

I curl into a ball on the sofa and clench a pillow to my stomach and think about retreating back into my well because at least there I couldn’t feel anything and that would be better than what I am going through now. I wonder if I really want to go back to the balance of the different medications required to keep me functioning, and I think about how much worse it must be for those with major mental illness as opposed to my relatively mild chronic depression.

I think about my daughter who deals with bipolarism and depression with incredible bravery. In the last two years she’s gone through the withdrawal and re-acclimation process twice. She went off her meds at first because she couldn’t afford them and with the bravura of youth she thought she’d be okay without them. Psychotropic drugs are expensive and many of them have no generic equivalents. Insurance companies don’t understand the delicate balance of neurological drugs, how one medication that works perfectly well for one person can do absolutely nothing for someone else, how the unique biochemistry of our brains determines which medication we will respond to and the insurance company’s definition of preferred drugs has absolutely nothing to do with it. My daughter’s insurance company prefers one psychotropic medication; her brain prefers another.

She didn’t tell us she went off her meds, knowing we would disapprove, wanting to handle things herself, until it got to be too much for her to handle. Unable to get to work, she quit her job, only telling us weeks later as though it were no big deal. Unable to pay her rent, she called us one night, frantic, sobbing, and we brought her home and moved her back in with us.

Back to the doctor she went and started the process of getting adjusted to her meds again, a long, painful year of sleeplessness, nausea, mania, brain zaps and mental exhaustion. Just when she thought she had achieved a balance and was starting to put her life back together again, she had a reaction to one of the medications, a reaction so severe that it shut down her liver. She had to stop the medication that maintained her emotional equilibrium and start the long slow process of stabilization again, only this time she had the additional burden of recovering from her physical illness at the same time.

(to be continued)